The following article is the fourth of a special symposium on the legacy of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in the month of its quincentennial. The first article can be found here, the second here, the third here.
Five hundred years ago on Oct. 31, 1517 – a day which at the time was called “All Saints Eve” from which we derive the Halloween (“hallowed eve”) – an obscure German monk named Martin Luther, according to legend, affixed his so-called “95 Theses” to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany. The incident was the spark that set off a political and religious conflagration that would sweep across Europe over the next 130 years and came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
Whether Luther did so as a theatrical act of protest against Catholic authority (an interpretation most historians dismiss), or whether the legend itself is largely “urban”, really matters little. The gesture in any case would have seemed fairly routine in Luther’s day, since it was the custom at the time for Christian scholars to engage their peers in debate by posting certain controversial propositions on what was, in effect, the local bulletin board.
However, the target of Luther’s call for debate was not at all incidental. In order to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, one of the wonders of Italian Renaissance, the Pope had commissioned the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel to travel around the German countryside and sell to the simple folk what were called “indulgences.”
Indulgences were a stock item in the Medieval Catholic penitential system and had been invented as early as the eleventh century around the time of the Crusades. They were metrical units of “forgiveness” for sins as well as different kinds of spiritual debt which, according to a complex scheme that had been carefully hammered out by Scholastic theologians during the late Middle Ages.
The conception of penance in the Middle Ages was essentially a supernatural version of the criminal justice system. Any particular “crime” against God and his creation (i.e., what Christianity calls “sins”) had its corresponding range of penalties and techniques for absolution. Rarely could even the most trivial transgression be discharged unconditionally. Someone somewhere somehow had to pay.
Besides developing an elaborate conceptual framework for determining where one must spend eternity and in what situation, the same theologians progressively refined what may be described as a “transactional” model of human salvation that strangely resembled the accountant’s increasingly intricate ledger.
The rapid growth of a European monetary economy along with a banking system provided the theoretical template. Furthermore, as in any banking arrangement, deficits within the heavenly ledger can not only be reduced over time by loans or other types of debt instruments, they can be settled by others.
Penitential theology even had its own analogue to a central bank, which it called the “treasury of merit,” that is, a repository of all the good deeds and saintly virtues that had been accumulated over time by Christian believers throughout the centuries. Even if one were a callous sinner, under the proper circumstances God through his clerical agents and intermediaries, and even with the aid of close friends and relatives, could draw upon this repository to rebalance each person’s liabilities toward a most holy Deity.
By the time Tetzel came preaching and peddling his spiritual snake oil during the second decade of the sixteenth century, indulgences themselves had even been thoroughly monetized, since illiterate peasants were not expected to understand the moral subtleties of the system as a whole. Tetzel’s message reputedly was crude, but highly effective: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs”.
Luther, whose own spiritual life as a monk had been radically transformed by his reading of Romans and Paul’s assertion that we are justified in the sight of God by faith rather than works, decided to take on Tetzel’s religious version of “pay to play” in the same way any contemporary theologian might challenge the excesses of the Prosperity of Gospel. He did not think that Pope Leo X, the second son of the powerful ruling De Medici family in Florence, would defend a spiritual costermonger whose reputation even within the curia itself was marginal.
But in his 95 Theses Luther also questioned Tetzel’s exaggerated claims about the Pope’s authority to remit any sin, or all sin. For example, Thesis 6 states that “the Pope can forgive sins only in the sense that he declares and confirms what may be forgiven of God“. That not unreasonable premise, however, threatened to disrupt the tentacle-like system of clerical corruption throughout Europe in which every church official from the local parish priest to the Pope himself was receiving a certain amount of undisclosed spoils from indulgence peddling.
Luther’s superiors first tried to ignore him. But when he finally out of frustration began to make a public case, the text of the 95 Theses were rapidly disseminated through the new “groundbreaking” technology of the printing press. Many who were already distrustful of the Church read Luther’s words with glee and adopted them as his champion against what they considered the shameful malfeasance of the religious authorities.
One of the dirty little secrets of the Reformation is that it was in many respects a populist insurgency against the smug triumphalism of what today we would term “cosmopolitan” cultural elites.
Much like the situation nowadays, the European economy in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century was improving for the first time in centuries as a result of trade and new technologies. But the benefits were only accruing to the very wealthy entrepreneurial families and mercantile magnates of urban Europe, especially those of the Italian city states.
By the same token, this “one percent” also controlled the politics of the Church, and exploited popular folk beliefs concerning heaven and hell to extract more than a regular pound of flesh from the masses of uneducated commoners. The violent and bloody peasant wars that erupted during the 1520s were a grim manifestation of this seething populist anger beneath the surface.
The Reformation, therefore, reflected one particular, partisan side of the raging “culture wars” of that era. We read in our history books and Mediterranean travel guides about the esthetic magnificence and architectural glories of the Italian Renaissance, but we are rarely confronted with the historical fact that so much of it was financed through the sleazy spiritual extortion racket of indulgences, which Luther found outrageous.
Luther was neither a politician nor a political insurgent. After he refused to side with the German peasants revolt in 1524, which the aristocracy brutally suppressed, he was widely reviled by many who had previously looked to him as their great emancipator. But his doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers”, which transferred the mantle of spiritual authority from the educated clergy to the must humble of Christians who read the Bible for themselves and work out their own salvation, became the cornerstone, according to the contemporary scholarly consensus, for the evolution of the key tenets of secular democracy.
Luther was in many ways a dyed-in-the-wool academic. But he had a profound empathy for, and understanding of, the character of his uneducated brethren, which led him to call out the arrogance and self-deception of his more sophisticated theological peers. Luther was himself a fierce, albeit learned, critic of what Michel Foucault has called “the pastorate” from which he argues today’s global system of neoliberal hegemony derives.
As writers such as Wendy Brown and Maurizio Lazzarato have made plain, the current neoliberal system – transforming each and every one of us into “entrepreneurs of the self”, as the former puts it, striving endlessly and futilely to amass enough education and virtuous professional accomplishments to enter the heaven of human self-worth – is not unlike the Catholic penitential system of 500 hundred years ago.
Although we no longer piously drop our precious coins in the coffers of the indulgence peddlers, we are still more than eager to mortgage our futures to pay for certain intangible things – whether they be college degrees or the favors of political lobbyists – that purport to better our position in the world, or to make the world itself a better place, but merely continue to stoke a corrupt system.
Where is Martin Luther now when we need him?
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.