Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Protestantism Began 500 Years Ago Today (Tuesday)

I don't have much to say - meaning, I guess, I have way too much to say - so I'll just mark this event with a few quotes.  First  from Christianity Today:

"Sometime during October 31, 1517, the day before the Feast of All Saints, the 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as a bulletin board for various announcements related to academic and church affairs. The theses were written in Latin and printed on a folio sheet by the printer John Gruenenberg, one of the many entrepreneurs in the new print medium first used in Germany about 1450. Luther was calling for a "disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light." He did so as a faithful monk and priest who had been appointed professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, a small, virtually unknown institution in a small town."
If the word indulgences didn't pop out at you in that paragraph, let's try again.  From Crosswalk:
"Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were particularly focused on the practice (and corruption) associated with indulgences. Specifically, indulgences were being sold for financial gain, as well as giving people a false assurance of salvation. It is not surprising that Luther posted his theses on October 31st, the eve of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, a time which emphasized the distinction between the souls of “saints” and the souls of everyone else, as well as revealed widespread misunderstanding about the power of indulgences (and the afterlife in general).

About a year after the wall came down in Berlin and between East and West Germany, I had an opportunity to visit Wittenberg and the famous church.  I wanted to put up my own picture of the church door in Wittenberg, but I haven't found it.

But this is a good time to ponder what actions stick and what actions disappear into nothingness.  Many were upset with the corruption of the Catholic bureaucracy in those days.  Why did Luther's actions make such a big difference?  I'm not going to answer that question because this isn't something I know all that much about.  But I'm sure he was helped by things that had happened before him.  I'm sure his own personality and skills played a role.  And I'm sure timing was a large part of this.

And we can ponder too, whether his 'solution' has made the world a better or worse place overall.  I don't know the answer to that, but the most interesting take that I've read on the impact of Protestantism was Max Weber's The Protestantism Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

You can read the whole book at this link.  Here's a bit from the 1976 introduction by Anthony Giddens.  It's hard boiling a complex work into a short summery, so consider this only a few notes of of a symphony.  I'll warn you that academic German writing can be hard and the translations are often even harder.  But the content is worth the effor
"What explains this historically peculiar circumstance of a drive to the accumulation of wealth conjoined to an absence of interest in the worldly pleasures which it can purchase? It would certainly be mistaken, Weber argues, to suppose that it derives from the relaxation of traditional moralities: this novel outlook is a distinctively moral one, demanding in fact unusual self- discipline. The entrepreneurs associated with the development of rational capitalism combine the impulse to accumulation with a positively frugal life-style. Weber finds the answer in the ‘this-worldly asceticism’ of Puritanism, as focused through the concept of the ‘calling’. The notion of the calling, according to Weber, did not exist either in Antiquity or in Catholic theology; it was introduced by the Reformation. It refers basically to the idea that the highest form of moral obligation of the individual is to fulfil his duty in worldly affairs. This projects religious behaviour into the day-to-day world, and stands in contrast to the Catholic ideal of the monastic life, whose object is to tran- scend the demands of mundane existence. Moreover, the moral responsibility of the Protestant is cumulative: the cycle of sin, repentance and forgiveness, renewed throughout the life of the Catholic, is absent in Protestantism. 
Although the idea of the calling was already present in Luther’s doctrines, Weber argues, it became more rigorously developed in the various Puritan sects: Calvinism, Methodism, Pietism and Baptism. Much of Weber’s discussion is in fact concentrated upon the first of these, although he is interested not just in Calvin’s doctrines as such but in their later evolution within the Calvinist movement. Of the elements in Calvinism that Weber singles out for special attention, perhaps the most important, for his thesis, is the doctrine of predestination: that only some human beings are chosen to be saved from damnation, the choice being predetermined by God. Calvin himself may have been sure of his own salvation, as the instrument of Divine prophecy; but none of his followers could be. ‘In its extreme inhumanity’, Weber comments, ‘this doctrine must above all have had one consequence for the life of a generation which surrendered to its magnificent consistency . . . A feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness’ (p. 60). From this torment, Weber holds, the capitalist spirit was born. On the pastoral level, two developments occurred: it became obligatory to regard oneself as chosen, lack of certainty being indicative of insufficient faith; and the performance of ‘good works’ in worldly activity became accepted as the medium whereby such surety could be demonstrated. Hence success in a calling eventually came to be regarded as a ‘sign’ – never a means – of being one of the elect. The accumulation of wealth was morally sanctioned in so far as it was combined with a sober, industrious career; wealth was condemned only if employed to support a life of idle luxury or self-indulgence." (pp. xi-xiii) (emphasis added)
Lots to think about there.

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