Luther’s Contradictions, Pt. III

Luther himself was not consistent.  He believed that it was possible to maintain the content of medieval social teaching, while rejecting its sanctions, and he insisted that good works would be the fruit of salvation as vehemently as he denied that they could contribute to its attainment.  In his writings on social questions emphasis on the traditional Christian morality is combined with a repudiation of its visible and institutional framework, and in the tragic struggle which results between spirit and letter, form and matter, grace and works, his intention, at least, is not to jettison the rules of good conscience in economic matters, but to purify them by an immense effort of simplification.  His denunciations of medieval charity, fraternities, mendicant orders, festivals and pilgrimages, while it drew its point from practical abuses, sprang inevitably from his repudiation of the idea that merit could be acquired by the operation of some special machinery beyond the conscientious discharge of the ordinary duties of daily life.  His demand for the abolition of the canon law was the natural corollary of his belief that the Bible was an all-sufficient guide to action.  While not rejecting ecclesiastical discipline altogether, he is impatient of it.  The Christian, he argues, needs no elaborate mechanism to teach him his duty or to correct him if he neglects it.  He has the Scriptures and his own conscience; let him listen to them.

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Luther’s impotence was not accidental.  It sprang directly from his fundamental conception that to externalize religion in rules and ordinances is to degrade it.  He attacked the casuistry of the canonists, and the points in their teaching with regard to which his criticism was justified were only too numerous.  But the remedy for bad law is good law, not lawlessness; and casuistry is merely the application of general principles to particular cases, which is involved in any living system of jurisprudence, whether ecclesiastical or secular.

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The logic of Luther’s religious premises was more potent for posterity than his attachment to the social ethics of the past, and evolved its own inexorable conclusions in spite of them.  It enormously deepened spiritual experience, and sowed the seeds from which new freedoms, abhorrent to Luther, were to spring.  But it riveted on the social thought of Protestantism a dualism which, as its implications were developed, emptied religion of its social content, and society of its soul.  Between light and darkness a great gulf was fixed.  Unable to climb upwards plane by plane, man must choose between salvation and damnation.  If he despairs of attaining the austere heights where true faith is found, no human institution can avail to help him.  Such, Luther thinks, will be the fate of only too many. (98-101)

R.H. Tawney | Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

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Luther’s Contradictions, Pt. II

Since salvation is bestowed by the operations of grace in the heart and by that alone, the whole fabric of organized religion, which had mediated between the individual soul and its Maker — divinely commissioned hierarchy, systematized activities, corporate institutions — drops away, as the blasphemous trivialities of a religion of works.  The medieval conception of the social order, which had regarded it as a highly articulated organism of members, contributing in their different degrees to a spiritual purpose, was shattered, and differences which had been distinctions within a larger unity were now set in irreconcilable antagonism to each other.  Grace no longer completed nature: it was the antithesis of it.  Man’s actions as a member of society were no longer the extension of his life as a child of God: they were its negation.  Secular interests ceased to possess, even remotely, a religious significance: they might compete with religion, but they could not enrich it.  Detailed rules of conduct — a Christian casuistry — are needless or objectionable: the Christian has a sufficient guide in the Bible and in his own conscience.  In one sense, the distinction between the secular and the religious life vanished.  Monasticism was, so to speak, secularized; all men stood henceforth on the same footing towards God; and that advance, which contained the germ of all subsequent revolutions, was so enormous that all else seems insignificant.  In another sense, the distinction became more profound than ever before.  For, though all might be sanctified, it was their inner life alone which could partake of sanctification.  The world was divided into good and evil, light and darkness, spirit and matter.  The division between them was absolute; no human effort could span the chasm. (97-98)

R.H. Tawney | Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Luther’s Contradictions, Pt. I

It might have been supposed that Luther, with his hatred of the economic appetites, would have hailed as an ally the restraints by which, at least in theory, those appetites had been controlled.  In reality, of course, his attitude towards the mechanism of ecclesiastical jurisprudence and discipline was the opposite.  It was one, not merely of indifference, but of repugnance.  The prophet who scourged with whips the cupidity of the individual chastised with scorpions the restrictions imposed upon it by society; the apostle of an ideal ethic of Christian love turned a shattering dialectic on the corporate organization of the Christian Church.  In most ages, so tragic a parody of human hopes are human institutions, there have been some who have loved mankind, while hating almost everything that men have done or made.  Of that temper Luther, who lived at a time when the contrast between a sublime theory and a hideous reality had long been intolerable, is the supreme example.  He preaches a selfless charity, but he recoils with horror from every institution by which an attempt had been made to give it a concrete expression.  He reiterates the content of medieval economic teaching with a literalness rarely to be found in the thinkers of the later Middle Ages, but for the rules and ordinances in which it had received a positive, if sadly imperfect, expression, he has little but abhorrence.  God speaks to the soul, not through the mediation of the priesthood or of social institutions built up by man, but solus cum solo, as a voice in the heart and in the heart alone.  Thus the bridges between the worlds of spirit and of sense are broken, and the soul is isolated from the society of men, that it may enter into communion with its Maker.  The grace that is freely bestowed upon it may overflow in its social relations; but those relations can supply no particle of spiritual nourishment to make easier the reception of grace.  Like the primeval confusion into which the fallen Angel plunged on his fatal mission, they are a chaos of brute matter, a wilderness of dry bones, a desert unsanctified and incapable contributing to sanctification. (96-97)

R.H. Tawney | Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Usury

But on the iniquity of payment merely for the act of lending, theological opinion, whether liberal or conservative, was unanimous, and its modern interpreter, who sees in its indulgence to interesse the condonation of interest, would have created a scandal in theological circles in any age before that of Calvin.  To take usury is contrary to Scripture; it is contrary to Aristotle; it is contrary to nature, for it is to live without labor; it is to sell time, which belongs to God, for the advantage of wicked men; it is to rob those who use the money lent, and to whom, since they make it profitable, the profits should belong; it is unjust in itself, for the benefit of the loan to the borrower cannot exceed the value of its principal sum lent him; it is in defiance of sound juristic principles, for when a loan of money is made, the property in the thing lent passes to the borrower and why should the creditor demand payment from a man who is merely using what is now his own? (43-44)

R.H. Tawney | Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Avarice

The medieval theorist condemned as a sin precisely that effort to achieve a continuous and unlimited increase in material wealth which modern societies applaud as a quality, and the vices for which he reserved his most merciless denunciations were the more refined and subtle of the economic virtues. “He who has enough to satisfy his wants,” wrote a Schoolman of the fourteenth century, “and nevertheless ceaselessly labors to acquire riches, either in order to obtain a higher social position, or that subsequently he may have enough to live without labor, or that his sons may become men of wealth and importance — all such are incited by a damnable avarice, sensuality, or pride.”  Two and a half centuries later, in the midst of a revolution in the economic and spiritual environment, Luther, in even more unmeasured language, was to say the same.  The essence of the argument was that payment may properly be demanded by the craftsmen who make the goods, or by the merchants who transport them, for both labor in their vocation and serve the common need.  The unpardonable sin is that of the speculator or the middleman, who snatches private gain by the exploitation of public necessities.  The true descendant of the doctrines of Aquinas is the labor theory of value.  The last of the Schoolmen was Karl Marx. (35-36)

R.H. Tawney | Religion and the Rise of Capitalism