Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Challenge of Reading and Interpreting Luther

Many aspects of Martin Luther’s body of work present challenges to historians both in content and tone.  At the same time, they are critical to understanding the core of Protestant theology, the origins of the Reformation, and the manner of scholarly discourse in the sixteenth century.  These attributes are particularly evident in “The Bondage of the Will”, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church”, and “An Appeal to the Ruling Class”, all of which were written and published between 1520 and 1525.

“The Bondage of the Will” was Luther’s response to Erasmus’ The Freedom of the Will.  Luther’s argued that contrary to Erasmus’ assertion that individuals have free will to strive for grace and salvation, that men and women lived in a state of bondage.  All people live in a state of bondage either to God or to Satan.  Those bound to God have the will to achieve grace only through the grace they receive directly from God through their faith.  In contrast, Luther contends, since even Erasmus agrees that people can only use their will to strive for grace effective only through the power of God, they really have no will of their own.  He extends this argument to assert that without God’s grace, free will makes them “the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil.”

While understanding Luther’s stance is important, his tone throughout “The Bondage of the Will” poses a challenge to historians reading only one side of the argument.  Having only one side of a conversation is always challenging, but Luther’s tone is sarcastic and ridiculing Erasmus throughout.  In this case, Erasmus’ work is still available for historians to compare to “The Bondage of the Will,” but what of situations where a historian has only on side of a debate of this nature, which seems to spiral into personal antipathy that does not appear warranted by subject of the debate?  This sometimes occurs in sources dealing with accusations of war crimes – accusers both within and without the Army are routinely castigated by political figures and defenders of the accused as weak, effeminate, or traitorous for even considering that a war crime might have occurred.  This phenomenon appeared after the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, and after revelations of abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.  Without having evidence and commentary from both sides, it is quite difficult to separate the hyperbole from events.  There is also the danger of erroneously discounting useful information that comes from sources that engage in emotional or personal attacks.

The second part of Luther’s “Appeal to the Ruling Class” is also a useful example of challenging documents.  Luther’s primary concern seems to be theological in nature, as he attempts to argue for reform in the Catholic Church.  However, beneath the surface focus on theology lies a fundamentally political argument about the rights and duties of secular rulers regarding exploiting their domains and caring for the people beholden to them.  Reading only in terms of Luther’s conflict with the Church hierarchy might lead historians to ignore or neglect his commentary on political affairs of the Holy Roman Empire, which not only suffered from division of political authority, but also suffers loss of revenues to Church officials, and Church interference in secular rule.

The problem of interpretation of evidence on many levels is obviously not restricted to Luther.  Looking at Cold War political behavior in the United States, historians have to examine both the political and cultural messages embedded in the discourse.  When Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched attacks on individuals and institutions looking for Communist spies, he simultaneously was attacking homosexuals, civil rights activists, and pacifists as being somehow less than American.  It is easy to dismiss this second part of his campaign as mere excess, when it might also be viewed as a method to stifle change and dissent within society.  This phenomenon also occurs in my research into Vietnam era war crimes – vigorous defense of individuals may also be a defense of the entire war, of policy makers, or of the entire army against radicals and anti-war activists.  How to weight these levels in my analysis is a significant concern.

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