Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Eating paninis in the 16th century - free will and justification

I had lunch with my daughter a few months ago, and had an awe inspiring turkey with cranberries, tomato and onions on panini bread.  I hate to think that this entire post is written just so I can relive those delectable moments in my head, but, I realize I am not above that. It's possible. I go back about once a week to the cafe just for that reason.  It was, indeed, an excellent panini and since this blog is ultimately about my thoughts, at the very least,  I just thought I'd mention it.

Just for the hell of it, I decided to research a little if there was any connection between panini and my actual topic, which is 16th century European religious history and sure enough there is - though slender.  For, according to various sites on the internet, the precursor for the panini was actually created in the 16th century.  I kid you not. I've also learned that the singular for panini, which is a plural, is actually panino, though I'm sure the interest level in these linguistic remarks will not set off any seismographs.

When my daughter arrived at lunch that first glorious day I was reading a book, as I almost always am when alone or waiting for virtually anything.  It was Ronald H. Bainton's  Here I Stand: A life of Martin Luther.  Bainton, who died in the 1980s after a long life, has been described as an historian of religious toleration.  Some of his books focused on one of the times and places that fascinates me most -- the 16th century.  I have read two of Bainton's books,  the one on Luther twice, with a third expected in the mail within a few days from now.  Bainton's particular interest in Christianity, and particularly that one century, seem to parallel mine, though I expect that unlike me he was a devoted Christian. But I don't really know and it isn't important enough to me to actually research.

I do not really take sides in most theological issues simply because I do not believe in a deity. So, for me issues like the trinity - whether God is one or three, divisible or indivisible, or, whether the body and blood of Christ is actually in the Eucharist metaphorically or spiritually - which concerned those in the 16th century a great deal (some even today) - do not concern me at all. Nor do the forms of prayers or rituals. But issues which relate to political or liberty do concern me.  Two topics which raged in the 16th century have always fascinated me more than any other, at least as far as Christianity is concerned, because they have something to do with liberty, ethics and toleration.  One is called "justification by faith" as opposed to good works and the other is free will.  Both were divisive issues in the separation of Protestant from Catholic Europe. We can wink at it now, but long, horrible wars have been fought over the right of heretics, some who became known as Protestants, and some of whom were heretics to Protestants. Bloody torture and murder were engaged in just to force someone to say -- I agree with you. 

While I tend to prefer the Catholics on those two issues, I am also an admirer of the Protestants efforts to unshackle the chains of the dominant united church and assert their religious liberty. However, it is often not recognized that many Catholic figures deserve that same praise, reform not being solely the desire or occupation of the Reform churches, although they certainly sped up the process much faster than if it were done without them.

At least when I read history, I feel an unending sense of gratitude towards those who have come before me and suffered the indignities, pain and suffering - even death - for their disbelief in God, as their suffering has helped lead to the fact that today reactions to my own disbelief are infinitely mild in comparison.  People just disagree with me, usually very civilly, and have very rarely ever threatened (I can think of once) and certainly never threatened torture or (obviously) death.  It would be irrational not to notice that often the same people who cried out for religious tolerance for themselves could be as intolerant of other's beliefs themselves.  When they talked about freedom, they meant for their viewpoint. I find that true in the 16th century as it is today.

That paradox is seen heavily in the 16th century and is certainly not unknown today. The two Protestants who always come to mind first are Martin Luther and John Calvin, and they were undoubtedly the largest figures in Protestantism, dwarfing in popular history such other figures as Zvingli and Melanchthon.  At the least it can be said that their two movements, roughly coinciding in time, were more similar than different, and resulted in more actual changes in Christian worship than others before or after them, whereas previous reform efforts by predecessors largely failed.  Luther, who is usually and I think fairly credited with beginning the Protestant revolution that effectively took root was preceded by others, including most famously, John Wycliffe of England and Jan Hus of Bohemia. Wycliffe's translation of the Bible into old English (most of it actually done by others) in the 13th-14th century, was considered a terrible crime by the church in England and Hus's revolution resulted in war and ended with his burning.  Luther himself came to recognize that he was merely restating, at least in general, that which had been argued by these two men before him. But, as opposed to either of those two, Luther was succored by government - Frederick the Wise and other nobility - so that he not only survived but flourished.  

It would be very easy to stick pins in both Luther and Calvin, particularly the latter, as they were not only men of their times, but forceful and passionate personalities of whom I could never detect anything but certainty and faith in their undertakings.  Both were very learned, perhaps brilliant men and both at least tried to be, by their lights, to be righteous, though we would call neither so in applying modern Western views on toleration.  Both were also exceptional writers, Luther perhaps more known for his breadth (you can buy a 55 volume set of his works) and fiery spirit and Calvin, no slacker when it came to voluminous works either, for his literary abilities.  

If either gets pride of place, it would probably be Luther, who was mercurial and could write with a white heat that can be very enjoyable to read even now.  Although some followers might be offended and Calvin chafed under Luther's disagreement with the Reform Church over the Lord's Supper, he was in a sense a Lutheran himself and even signed Melanchthon's Variata on the Augsburg Confession (although the Lutheran Churches themselves are split on which version is controlling). 

Childish name calling with those who disagreed with you was readily practiced by even the devout in those days, and I have to say that sometimes this unfortunate tendency is what makes reading these sometimes insufferable figures bearable and even enjoyable.  The word "vituperative" is sometimes applied to Luther, but certainly could be applied to Calvin as well. One of my favorite Luther remarks is from his letter to Henry the VIIIth, which he addressed -- "From Martin, by the grace of God, to Henry, the King of England, by the disgrace of God." 

However, like most men who wrote a lot over a long period of time, his opinions changed and you fairly easily discern directly inconsistent positions in his writing. 

Luther is also sometimes criticized for anti-Semitism. But that really is a more modern sentiment. Initially he was sympathetic with Jews but later called for their being expelled from Lutheran lands. Some link his anti-Semitism historically with the 20th century holocaust, but others defend him as complaining about their religion and that it was never racial for him; that is, he thought of the Jews no differently than he did of others who did not accept his beliefs. Luther was also initially against using the sword against "heretics," though,  of course, he was called one himself, but he did not maintain this position consistently and thought it acceptable to use violence against those like the Anabaptists. He did, in fact, believe in the death penalty for sedition and blasphemy, but his categories for these two crimes was much larger than ours would be and included those who simply believed differently than he did. I have trouble seeing how it can be rationally argued but that he approved of the murder of Jews and others.

Calvin has come down to us in popular history as a more dour figure than Luther, who would hold raucous court with his young students and spout witticisms over dinner almost like the 20th century Algonquin group (although his primacy in it made him both Groucho and Dorothy Parker). Perhaps I am just ignorant of it, but I have no knowledge of Calvin making a joke about anything.  More, though as far as I can find in the little time I devoted to it, he condemned even idle talk and pleasantries. But, worse, his passionate piety and intellectual defense of his view seemed to me a facade that hid a killer, even if it is true that he weeped at Michael Servetus being put to the torch, as some of his modern followers like to point out.  For he was himself instrumental in Servetus' arrest, trial and eventual burning purely on theological grounds.  And though Servetus was quite a brilliant and arrogant man too, it is very hard to see how his questioning the trinity or other similar unconventional, could be rationally viewed as a threat to Calvin's theocracy and power except in so far as free speech and conscience has frightened many of the powerful right up to present times.                                                                                        

A tendency to like and sympathize with those who agree with our opinion may even have a natural basis, or so it appears to me. It gratifies people when others affirm our beliefs particularly if we can convince them to change their position, and frustrates us when they disagree, particularly if they cling to beliefs that seem untenable to us. J. W. Allen, another one of my favorite historians of religion and political thought wrote concerning this volatile century: "It has to be remembered, also, that there of course existed, on all sides, the constant tendency of the human mind to resent disagreement and to regard those who differ from ourselves as foolish or perverse or wicked. . . Men have to learn not to resent contradiction; and when the proposition in question is one that seems of the utmost import, the lesson is hard to learn. That which has convinced me, ought, it seems, to convince all others, or, alternatively, it ought not to have convinced me. The alternative may seem intolerable."

And it was intolerable to them. It would also be easy to go through a list of horribles from the sixteenth century, including the torture and burning of many heretics like Anabaptists (of whom it seems thousands were burned).  This sect was anathema not just to Catholics, but reformers like Calvin and Luther as well. Though most Anabaptists were non-violent seekers of what they felt was the pure primitive church that had existed after the death of Christ, in some ways the hippies of their time, there were even those among them who were as tyrannical and intolerant as their persecutors. At least, Thomas Müntzer  called for the slaughter of all those who did not accept his brand of Christianity.  As they did not have sufficient resources to do what he sought, he and his followers were slaughtered themselves. Müntzer  is an interesting study in what I am talking about, though he was monstrous by both our and sixteenth century standards. He wanted to free Christianity from much of its dogma, and rightfully argued that there was no way to know if the gospels were true. He believed that Christians in his day needed to return to a  primitive (we would call it communistic) Church and trust in their own revelations - not those of the past.  He believed, as Anabaptists did, that infant baptism made no sense, as they were too young to understand what was happening. He believed in adult baptism, though it is controversial whether he himself took the adult plunge and was a true Anabaptist. All this seems very modern. His willingness to do it by the sword, very medieval.  

Though casual popular history might have us believe the idea of religious freedom and freedom in general popped out of John Locke's mind and pen in the late 1600s (though he was not nearly so tolerant as almost anyone reading this blog would be today), the idea was always around, if not so developed.  It certainly did not arise in the sixteenth century after a 2000 year slumber from the Golden Age of Athens.  For example,  lost in most popular retellings of history is the defensor pacis of the fourteenth century,  which argued that the Pope's power is limited to religious matters. The defensor pacis itself was an extension of an essay by none other than Dante, whose De Monarchia was published even earlier that century. These were calls for secular states, not fully developed individual freedom as we would see it, but include aspects of religious freedom sorely lacking at the time and played out on a much larger scaled a few centuries later.  You can trace the notion of freedom back as far as you are willing and able to research it and, likely, it extends back, though out of our reach, to pre-historic times, when the first man or woman decided they were just going to do or believe what they wanted regardless of what the chief or council permitted.

But, the nature of the argument changes over time as well as the consequences of dissent. Some ideas needed to be restated over and over again before they take root for other reasons. And they were restated fervently and with great effect in the sixteenth century by Luther and Calvin as well as others.

It was also impossible at that time to separate politics and religion. The idea that they should be separated at all was in its germ stage in our culture, though I think that Luther, more than Calvin, played a role in the progress of this idea. As they both knew, the price for religious freedom was to subject oneself to secular power.  For Luther government and religion were two separate things that should not be entwined, but nevertheless, government had a duty to stamp out heresy. For Calvin, the state also controlled, but its major purpose was to enshrine the "true" religion. The Lutherans (Luther preferred "evangelists") and Calvinists saw great difference between them in this as in other things, but for me and I'm sure most modern people, these are relatively similar positions, both allowing religion to dominate the government.  Whatever their beliefs, it was rare that anyone with any sway truly separated religion and political theory in that era.

Even Macchiavelli, who slighted preceded Luther in time, though not really influence, and who seems more modern to us, saw religion as playing a dominant role in government, though to him it appears this was a strategic principle, and not a pious one, in order to fashion public spirit, which in turn fostered liberty. It was not necessary for him that the rulers even believe the religion, so much as use it for the benefit of the state. Nor did he necessarily think Christianity the best religion to do this.  But, Macchiavelli, whose name is synonymous with power politics, was not on a winning team when he wrote, but in dejected retirement.  In fact, had he been on the winning side, he probably never would have written at all.

Others in the 16th century possibly deserve more credit than either Luther or Calvin in pursuing aspects of religion that were a cause for progress in liberty. Of great interest to me are two writers, Castellion and Acontius (you can find many variations of their names), and certainly also Servetus, all of whom wrote and believed that there could be no certainty in religion and that it should be freely discussed and a matter of free conscience. But, without Luther and Calvin, it is possible we would never have even heard of any of the three, and none were household names at either their own time or now.  However, it is also true that the tolerant view of Castellion and Acontius and Servetus prevailed, while the intolerant view government of Calvin and Luther slowly and haltingly gave way (at least for now). Ironically, by virtue of their fame and influence, it is the latter two who unwittingly paved the way for greater tolerance. Indeed, the modern followers of Calvin and Luther's faiths are probably close to uniformly tolerant, and even regret many of their founder's views, just as we regret the slave holding of revered forefathers.

The doctrine of justification by faith is a religious doctrine that I could easily just choose not to care or think about like I do with other religious questions. Arguably it is one more question akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and some choose to discuss it by terming it one of the mysteries we can know little about. But, despite living safe in the womb of a secular state which has for quite a long time been quite disentangled from religion, the debate mildly concerned me a little for a long time. I have even spent more time than I can justify studying the position of Luther and his closest theological companion, Melanchthon, as well as that of Catholic Church fathers like Augustine and Origen, trying to wrestle out of it what was philosophic as opposed to theological. In this either I failed or they did.  The arguments are as confusing as most religious doctrines and I can see little sense in the discussions even as far back as St. Paul and Acts.  But, this is sometimes also true of many, perhaps most philosophical arguments I've read.  Perhaps it is just not in my nature to be easily persuaded and I tend to read even my favorite philosophers extremely critically (I have noted to myself that although my favorite 20th century philosopher Karl Popper insists that he himself should be read critically, he would probably be very disgruntled to know that I find much of his epistemological arguments as irrational as those irrationalists he criticizes).

Put in the simplest way, the argument of justification by faith alone comes from Luther's reading of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. It was the most important of his differences with the Catholics. According to Luther, you do not get to heaven by doing good works, but solely by the grace of God based on your faith in him. Good works spring from the faith, not vice versa.  When he translated the Bible into German, a work that had a huge impact on Europe, he decided to include the word "only" after "faith" - Sola fide - in his reading of Romans. In other words, where St. Paul wrote justified by faith, Luther boldly insisted on justified by faith only. When called out on it he admitted that the word only was not found in Paul, but argued that you would have to be an idiot to think that it wasn't plainly implied there. That sounds a little crafty to me, but, I've read Romans, and though it is confusing as hell and too much credit is given Paul for a reasoned argument, I think Luther may have been right - Paul meant justification by faith only.  

And, apparently, after centuries of argument, the two sides seem to have tried to patch this whole schmegegge - at least some Lutherans and the Catholic Church.  In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation (not all Lutherans) and the Catholic Church made a Joint Declaration (which they claimed was not new) which I thought glossed over their differences in a diplomatic fashion, not worthy in my opinion of the scholarship, however biased, that came before it.

My dislike of the doctrine and my singling it out as one of the two or three that really makes a difference is based up my concern that when people believe that their behavior is solely guided by faith in a higher power, then their behavior is guided by whatever those they feel have authority over them, whether it be a religious figure or voices they hear in their own head. If that sounds overly dramatic to you, remember we live in a world where there are countries, terrorists and plain crazy people all motivated in that very way to do violence to others. It doesn't matter what religious theory supports their beliefs. They justify any action with certainty of its sanctification.

I only said that I am mildly concerned about it. I can hardly be terrified when it comes to our own culture in which what I term the enlightenment values have been in my lifetime dominant over religious ones.  In fact, I have found that many American Lutherans and Baptists with whom I discussed it were not even aware that justification by faith was the theology of their church.

On the other hand, I also accept that the liberties in our and every generation have to be watched over carefully and are ephemeral, as we see over and over again in history. I was not pleased to read of a recent poll that found that approximately one-third of Americans believe that their own states and also the United States, should officially be a Christian nation. Not that all of them think it would be constitutional - that is actually a much smaller number of those posed. And far larger numbers feel that we should not have any state religion. However, one-third is a very significant number, and my reading of history shows that far smaller numbers than that, organized and motivated, can influence a country's direction. This was as true of our own revolution as it was of the Nazi's rise to power. 

There is no doubt in my mind either that those who believe in dominating others are often more animated and aggressive than those who believe in freedom, the latter group only being roused when they see their rights have been largely taken away. Those who seek to merge religion and government often imagine there is already a war upon them. Or perhaps this is only a tactic you can find throughout history, enabling them to gain unfair advantage in a dispute. I can't tell you how many articles I read every year about a war on Christianity or Christmas, or people I personally know who believe it. So, whereas I am slow to rouse also, and wish I could simply ignore this doctrine, it is something to think about.

The other issue that Luther thought as important as justification was free will, which is closely related. Generally speaking, both Calvinism and Lutheranism take the position that man does not have free will, at least in some common sense meanings (there is to them a separate civil and religious sense) and their positions were not precisely in accordance with each other. Still, I would say the lack of free will is a principle part of their religion. The Catholic belief is to the contrary. This brings in a third figure who is central to the 16th century debate on this, which is Desideratus Erasmus, or more simply, Erasmus, who was a classicist and great translator of the Bible and a Catholic sympathizer with reform who believed it should be a matter inside the Mother Church and certainly all of the major figures weighed in on it. Really, they are all debating St. Augustine and Origen as well.

I rarely intend anything comprehensive in this blog, and certainly am not going to try to do so with this heavily treaded topic. I will though sum up the three positions thus:

Erasmus (On Free Will): "Those who deny any freedom of the will and affirm absolute necessity, admit that God works in man not only the good works, but also evil ones. It seems to follow that inasmuch as man can never be the author of good works, he can also never be called the author of evil ones. This opinion seems obviously to attribute cruelty and injustice to God, something religious ears abhor vehemently. (He would no longer be god if anything vicious and imperfect were met in him.)"

Luther (from his On Human Bondage): "THIS, therefore, is also essentially necessary and wholesome for Christians to know: That God foreknows nothing by contingency, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His immutable, eternal, and infallible will. By this thunderbolt, "Free-will" is thrown prostrate, and utterly dashed to pieces. Those, therefore, who would assert "Free-will," must either deny this thunderbolt, or pretend not to see it, or push it from them."

Calvin (from his Institutes of Religion): "That man is so enslaved by the yoke of sin, that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit, has, I think, been sufficiently proved. Moreover, a distinction has been drawn between compulsion and necessity, making it clear that man, though he sins necessarily, nevertheless sins voluntarily."

As with the argument about justification, my concerns lie not with the "truth," but with the excuse that not believing in free will brings. For if man does not have free will, it matters not what he thinks. If he does have free will, then it matters what everyone thinks about it - for then believing in it should more likely lead someone to at least choose to do "good." That in itself doesn't solve the problem, of course, as that person's and my own definitions of what "good" is might greatly differ. But, it is at least a start, because it is an impetus to bother trying. Resignation to those things out of our control is a good thing. Resignation to everything, pure fatalism, is not.

My positions with respect to justification and free will are somewhat different. Not being a believer, and not therefore believing in salvation or heaven or related concepts, I do not believe that justification (that is, how we are saved) actually exists. But, I do think the belief in its existing and the consequent beliefs in how salvation it is attained does matter a lot, for reasons I stated above. With respect to free will, I do believe that it exists, though not because of the arguments that Erasmus, Luther or Calvin make, or, frankly, that made by any philosopher I have read. I doubt very much that we are capable, or will be in the future - at least in my lifetime - of ever knowing whether we have free will or whether our apparent will is predetermined by everything in life that has come before us (determinism). My own belief is purely introspective. That may sound mundane, but I do not believe we can do better than his, however inconclusive it may be. More, I would argue that in spite of anyone's position that they do not believe in free will, they nevertheless will live their lives as if they did. But, as with justification, I do believe that our belief in free will helps us avoid the excuse of choosing to do bad or selfish acts based on a belief in the lack of it and that this is also quite important.

I have spent a lot of time traveling in the 16th century through my beloved books. Were I at leisure to spend more time there I would. Although I do not think I would like to spend time with Mr. Calvin, I am pretty sure I would with Mr. Luther - though I expect his conceit and certainty would ultimately prove insufferable - even more so than I would with those other historical figures I have mentioned whose way of thinking is much closer to my own. But, in the meantime, while the problems with actual time travel are hammered out, I will continue whiling away hours there virtually, reading and eating my panini.


  1. Lutherans? Really? The most BORING religion in the world makes the most boring blog in the world. You couldn't see that coming? When the most exciting thing you can say about historical figures is that they were dour and severe and burned some heretics... well you are better off just moving on. It's like have a feral cat and a Jaguar standing next to each other and focusing on the feral cat. Meh.

  2. Anonymous10:02 AM

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  3. Oh, no, he did not say that. He did not take something I love, kick it all over the floor (the way the office staff did when the crematorium mailed me my father's ashes), reduce it to an absurdity and then mock it for not saying much. No he did not.

    Oh, he did. Come here. Smack, smack, smack, smack. And those aren't kisses.

  4. Look at the comment section in your blog. What the hell are you talking about? You railed against someone who likes your blog. Tu est une idiot.

  5. I'm talking about your comment. What are you talking about? Not the spam that somehow got printed below it and I have now sneakily deleted after cleverly inserting yours where it belongs.

    And when you are calling me an idiot in a foreign language, can you correctly conjugate the verb, mon frere? "Tu es," not "tu est." What you wrote was equivalent to "You is an idiot." And I was the worst student in my French class. And, just to rub it in, you got the article wrong too. "oh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh" (that is French laughter, if it wasn't obvious).

    1. I meant "you is an idiot", you idiot. Of course I did. Garrison Keillor (I'm not bothering to look up how to spell his name, if I got it wrong, bite me)has made a living making fun of how BORING Lutherans are. Their favorite activity is ICE FISHING. For the love of god, ICE FISHING??? Almost as BORING as 34 paragraphs on the founders of the Lutheran faith, which in a grim twist of fate, a cruel spiritual joke, I ACTUALLY read, hoping it would get better or crystallize into some salient point, since I have so much faith in you as a writer. But, this time, my faith was quashed, much like the Lutherans. Sadly ironic.

  6. Oh, so, then you are saying you liked it?

    There are few historical figures as fascinating as Martin Luther, because of his his personal drama and courage, affect on the Western world and his writing style and scholarship (vituperative as he was). I have no opinions as to whether Lutherans are anymore boring than anyone else. I think Garrison Keiler is very entertaining, but what's wrong with ice fishing? Some people find reading boring too. Not you. Not I.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .