Derek R. Nelson
So much is known about Martin Luther, and the stakes of telling his story have been perceived to be so high, that an astonishing variety of presentations of his life have been offered. Some of his earliest opponents sought to discredit and vilify Luther by highlighting and in some cases fabricating shameful details about his life. His collaborators and sympathizers came to his defense. With similar one-sidedness, they inaugurated a long tradition of Luther hagiography. The man who did much to diminish the role that devotion to the saints played in the piety of Christianity came to function much like a Protestant saint. Miracles, such as his portrait not burning up in house fires, even came to be attributed to him.
As the process of confessionalization took place, subsequent generations told the Luther story as one of divine intervention in history. The monastic theologian became an evangelical prophet as well as a “national” hero. For Roman Catholics, Luther became the quintessential heresiarch, because the spate of divisions emerging from medieval Christendom were thought to be attributed to him, and thus any attempt to characterize and caricature him could be justified by appealing to the urgency to refute him. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century biographies of Luther display evidence of the growing sensitivity to objective historical scrutiny but maintained their confessional biases. Protestants in their 20th-century portrayals tend to exemplify the dominant philosophical and methodological interests of biographers: existentialists see an existentialist Luther, psychoanalysts see a manic-depressive Luther, and so on.
Portrayals of Luther come in other media, as well. Stage adaptations and numerous films show a tormented, angst-ridden soul who faces his pain with sometimes heroic resolve. And Luther becomes a wax nose, easily bent for organizers’ agendas, when he is depicted and contextualized in various anniversaries of his life, death, and Reformation.
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.
Luther had a notoriously ambivalent attitude towards what was still the new technology of the printing press. He could both praise it as God’s highest act of grace for the proclamation of God’s Word, and condemn it for its unprecedented ability to mangle the same beyond recognition. That ambivalence seems to be reflected in the judgment of modern scholarship. Some have characterized the Reformation as a paradigmatic event in the history of mass communications (a Medien- or Kommunikationsereignis), while others have poured scorn on any reductionist attempt to attribute a complex movement to a technological advance and to posit in effect a doctrine of “Justification by Print Alone.”
The evidence in favor of some sort of correlation between the use of printing and the success of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland is certainly formidable. Thousands of German Reformation pamphlets (Flugschriften) survive to this day in research libraries and other collections (with Luther’s own works predominant among them), suggesting that the Holy Roman Empire was once awash with millions of affordable little tracts in the vernacular. Contemporary opponents of the Reformation lamented the potency of cheap print for propaganda and even for agitation among “the people,” and did their best either to beat the evangelical writers through legislation or else to join them by launching their own literary campaigns. But, ubiquitous as the Reformation Flugschrift was for a comparatively short time, the long-term impact of printing on Luther’s Reformation was even more impressive, above all in the production and dissemination of Bibles and partial Bibles that used Luther’s German translation. The message of the Lutheran Reformation, with its emphasis on the proclamation of God’s Word to all, seemed to coincide perfectly with the emergence of a new medium that could, for the first time, transmit that Word to all.
Against this correlation must be set the very low literacy rate in the Holy Roman Empire in the early 16th century, which on some estimates ranged between only 5 and 10 percent. of the entire population. Even taking into account the fact that historical literacy rates are notoriously difficult to estimate, the impact of printing on the majority must have been negligible. This fact has led historians to develop more nuanced ways of understanding the early-modern communication process than simply imagining a reader sitting in front of a text. One is to recognize the “hybridity” of many publications—a pamphlet might contain labeled illustrations, or be capable of being read out aloud as a sermon, or of being sung. Luther himself published many successful hybrid works of this kind. Another is the notion of the “two-stage communication process,” by which propagandists or advertisers direct their message principally to influential, literate, opinion-formers who cascade the new ideas down. Clearly much work remains to be done in understanding how Luther’s propaganda and public opinion interacted. The fact that our present generations are living through a series of equally transformative and disruptive communications revolutions will no doubt inspire new questions as well as new insights.
Martin Luther used the practice and notion of promise for theological and practical ends. As a theological notion, promise allowed Luther to work through important problems about God and God’s actions in Christ. Practically, Luther employed promise to understand sacraments, human action, and interpretation of the Bible.
What unites these two ends is Luther’s taking promise as a gift of God, albeit a gift difficult to categorize according to the taxonomy of gifts in cultural anthropology. God’s promise is an effective word (verbum efficax), a speech act that does what it says. In other places of Luther’s work, promise denotes an action that priests and ministers undertake in order to communicate God’s word. He used it to articulate Christ’s activity in the Eucharist. Faith can mean many things in Luther’s work, but he frequently sees it as the correlate of promise. This shows that Luther follows the practical use of promise and fidelity in the Stoic tradition in addition to his interpretation of the Bible and his theological heritage. Luther considers promise to point to something God will do in the future or that promise limits God’s power in a way that makes that promise trustworthy. When compared to a “last will and testament,” it signifies a gift to those designated as heirs. In sum, not only does promise offer practical aims for the activity of the church; it also limits and generates theological reflection on God. For Luther, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with [human beings] other than through the word of promise” (De captivitae babylonica (1520) WA 6:516, 30–33; LW 36:42, translation modified).
Jack R. Lundbom
“Prophets” in the ancient world were individuals said to possess an intimate association with God or the gods, and conducted the business of transmitting messages between the divine and earthly realms. They spoke on behalf of God or the gods, and on occasion solicited requests from the deity or brought to the deity requests of others.
The discovery of texts from the ancient Near East in the 19th and early 20th centuries has given us a fuller picture of prophets and prophetic activity in the ancient world, adding considerably to reports of prophets serving other gods in the Bible and corroborating details about prophets in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Two collections are important: (1) letters from the 18th-century Mari written during the reigns of Yasmaḫ-Addu (c. 1792–1775) and Zimri-Lim (c. 1774–1760); and (2) the 7th-century annals of Assyrian kings Esarhaddon (680–669) and Assurbanipal (668–627).
Prophecies at Mari are favorable for the most part, and censures of the king, when they occur, are not harsh. Many simply remind the king of some neglect or give him some warning. One tells the king to practice righteousness and justice for anyone who has been wronged. None censures the people of Mari as biblical prophecies do the people of Israel. Assyrian oracles are largely oracles of peace and wellbeing, typically giving assurance to the king about matters of succession and success in defeating enemies. If prophets admonish the king, it is a mild rebuke about the king ignoring a prior oracle or not having provided food at the temple.
According to the Bible, Israel’s prophetic movement began with Samuel, and it arose at the time when people asked for a king. Prophets appear all throughout the monarchy and into the postexilic period, when Jewish tradition believed prophecy had ceased. Yet, prophets reappear in the New Testament and early church: Anna the prophetess, John the Baptist, Jesus, and others. Paul allows prophets to speak in the churches, ranking them second only to apostles.
Hebrew prophets give messages much like those of other ancient Near Eastern prophets, but what makes them different is that they announce considerably more judgment—sometimes very harsh judgment—on Israel’s monarchs, leading citizens, and the nation itself. Israel’s religion had its distinctives. Yahweh was bound to the nation by a covenant containing law that had to be obeyed. Prophets in Israel were therefore much preoccupied with indicting and judging kings, priests, other prophets, and an entire people for covenant disobedience. Also, in Israel the lawgiver was Yahweh, not the king. In Mari, as elsewhere in the ancient Near East, the king was lawgiver. Deuteronomy contains tests for true and false prophets, to which prophets themselves add other disingenuine marks regarding their contemporaneous prophetic colleagues.
Hebrew prophets from the time of Amos onward speak in poetry and are skilled in rhetoric, using an array of tropes and knowing how to argue. Their discourse also contains an abundance of humor and drama. Speaking is supplemented with symbolic action, and in some cases the prophets themselves became the symbol.
Janine Giordano Drake
As a nation grounded in the appropriation of Native land and the destruction of Native peoples, Christianity has helped define what it means to be “American” from the start. Even though neither the Continental Congress nor the Constitutional Convention recognized a unifying set of religious beliefs, Protestant evangelicalism served as a force of cohesion that helped Americans rally behind the War for Independence. During the multiple 19th-century wars for Indian removal and extermination, Christianity again helped solidify the collapse of racial, class, and denominational categories behind a love for a Christian God and His support for an American nation. Close connections between Christianity and American nationhood have flared in popularity throughout American history, particularly during wartime. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, the closely affiliated religious and racial categories of Christianity and whiteness helped solidify American identity.
However, constructions of a white, Christian, American nation have always been oversimplified. Slavery, land-grabbing, and the systematic genocide of Native peoples ran alongside the creation of the American myth of a Christian nation, founded in religious freedom. Indeed, enslavement and settler colonialism helped contrive a coherence to white Protestantism during a moment of profound disagreement on church government, theology, and religious practice. During the antebellum period, white Protestants constructed a Christian and American identity largely in opposition to categories they identified as non-Christian. This “other” group was built around indigenous, African, Muslim, and sometimes-Catholic religious beliefs and their historic, religious, and racial categorizations as “pagans,” “heathens,” and “savages.” In the 19th-century republic, this “non-Christian” designation defined and enforced a unified category of American Protestants, even though their denominations fought constantly and splintered easily. Among those outside the rhetorical category of Protestantism were, frequently, Irish and Mexican Catholics, as well as Mormons. Enforced segregation of African Americans within or outside of white Protestant churches furthered a sense of Protestant whiteness. When, by the late 19th century, Protestantism became elided with white middle class expectations of productive work, leisure, and social mobility, it was largely because of the early 19th-century cultural associations Protestants had built between white Protestantism, republicanism, and civilization.
The fact that the largest categories of immigrants in the late 19th century came from non-Protestant cultures initially reified connections between Protestantism and American nationalism. Immigrants were identified as marginally capable of American citizenship and were simply considered “workers.” Protestant expectations of literacy, sobriety, social mobility, and religious practice helped construct Southern and Eastern European immigrants as nonwhite. Like African Americans, New Immigrants were considered incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of American citizenship. Fears that Catholic and Jewish immigrants, like African Americans, might build lasting American institutions to change the cultural loci of power in the country were often expressed in religious terms. Groups such as the No-Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Immigration Restriction League often discussed their nationalist goals in terms of historic connections between the nation and Anglo-Protestantism. During the Great Depression and the long era of prosperity in the mid-20th century, the Catholic and Jewish migrants gradually assimilated into a common category of “whiteness” and American citizenship. However, the newly expansive category of postwar whiteness also further distanced African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others as perpetual “foreigners” within a white, Protestant, Christian nation.
Throughout his academic life, Martin Luther was in constant discussion with philosophy. He was prepared for this with a substantial study of philosophy at the University of Erfurt, finishing with a master of arts degree. In many parts of Luther’s work, there are explicit discussions of philosophy, in the interpretation of biblical texts and in the definition of theological concepts. Quite early in his theological career, Luther became aware of the problematic dominance of Aristotelian scholastic philosophy in the formation and definition of theological concepts. He was always attempting to develop a clear distinction between philosophy and theology, which freed theology from the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy and from the limits of Aristotelian logic, but the same time respected the significance of philosophy. As Luther preferred clear critique and often used strident language for this, his sometimes polemical critique of philosophy, logic, and “the philosopher” (Aristotle) was often interpreted as a fundamental dismissal of philosophy. Since the late 20th century, research has presented a very different picture of Luther’s understanding of philosophy, of the role and significance he gave to philosophy theoretically and in his practical academic work, and of the relation of Luther’s references to Aristotle and the concrete Aristotelian philosophy in scholasticism, as well as to the relationship between theology and philosophy in general. All this research showed how deeply Luther was rooted in the philosophical discourses and contexts of late scholasticism and involved in the debates of nominalism. But this research also made clear how Luther successfully struggled to come to a very different model of the relationship between theology and philosophy than the models of scholasticism, which secured the independence of both intellectual disciplines despite their close relatedness their relatedness. Luther’s understanding of philosophy and philosophy’s significance for theology is closely related to his concept of reason. Again, there is some polemical critique of reason in Luther’s writings, but in fact Luther had a high appreciation of reason, when reason was in exploring the physical, social, and psychic reality and in shaping the natural, social, and moral world. Luther was critical and polemical toward reason when it was used in matters of faith. But although the use of reason in theology had its limits, it was nevertheless indispensable in theological work. This was especially clear in Luther’s hermeneutics, as reason was the means to come to the external clarity of biblical texts in the process of interpretation.
Martin Luther was a subject of the Elector of Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire. His emergence as a reformer was made possible by the sponsorship he received in Wittenberg. He owed his survival to the protection afforded him by the Elector when Emperor Charles V outlawed him and ordered that the papal ban of excommunication be enforced in the empire. The audience to which Luther appealed was the general population of German Christians, both lay and ecclesiastical, who wanted a reform of the church and the reduction of the pope’s influence over it. That his appeal resonated so widely and so profoundly had much to do with a combination of crises that had developed in the empire from the 15th century. That his reform proposals resulted in the formation of a new church owed everything to the political structures of the empire. These facilitated the suppression of radical challenges to Luther’s position. They also thwarted every effort Charles V made over several decades to ensure that the empire remained Catholic. Lutheranism became entwined with the idea of German liberty; as a result, its survival was secured in the constitution of the empire, first in 1555 and then in 1648.
Frank C. Senn
The Reformation era was one of the most fertile times for liturgical revision in the history of Christianity between Late Antiquity and the late 20th century. New theological ideas, based on a study of the Bible and combined with humanist historical and literary scholarship, created dissatisfaction with the received medieval rites. Each of the great reformers undertook the work of liturgical reform, often producing two or more liturgical orders. Important Reformation liturgical work includes the reform proposals of Martin Luther, their implementation in official church orders, the very different approach to liturgy in the orders prepared by Ulrich Zwingli at Zürich, the worship of sectarian groups of Brethren and Anabaptists, the mediating Protestant liturgies that evolved in Strassburg and their influence on John Calvin in Strasbourg (there were German and French congregations in this city that straddled Germany and France; to indicate Bucer’s and Calvin’s liturgies, I use both the German and French spellings of the city) and Geneva, the liturgical changes that occurred in England during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, the work of the Scottish reformer John Knox among English exiles on the continent during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor and later in Scotland, the compromises of the Elizabethan settlement, the efforts of the Catholic Church to respond both to the Protestant attacks on traditional teachings and practices and to the frustrations of their own clergy with liturgies that had become overburdened with accretions of dubious historical veracity and literary quality and the complications of a cluttered calendar, and two final examples of Reformation liturgy among the New England Puritans and the Westminster Directory in the 17th century. The Reformation was a time of growing divisions between Christian people, especially in practices of public worship. But Protestants and Catholics were also responding in similar ways to cultural challenges that they themselves could not see. In their various ways they were turning away from rituals that concerned the body and toward doctrinal issues that engaged the mind. Reformation worship, both Protestant and Catholic, increasingly focused on informed (i.e., catechized) participation in new rites nurtured by a clear proclamation of the word and administration of the sacraments.
David M. Whitford
Violence was first experienced in the church as martyrdom. Under the Roman Empire, Christians were subjected to state-sponsored penalties ranging from fines to corporal punishment to execution. A number of prominent early theologians and apologists fell victim, including Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Origen, Cyprian, Perpetua, and Felicity. With the end of persecution under Constantine and then its eventual designation as the empire’s official religion, Christianity’s relationship to violence changed significantly. While some theologians had attempted to grapple with the question of whether Christians could join the Roman armies, the new relationship between church and state required new theological consideration. Accordingly, new questions arose: For example, could or should the state enforce right belief? Over time, three general approaches to violence emerged.
The first is a coercive model. In this model, the state (and then later, the church in places) used its punitive powers to enforce Christian orthodoxy and fight against its enemies, both within its own borders and externally. St. Augustine provided part of the justification for coercion in his “Letter 93: To Valentius,” in which he argued that not all persecution is evil. If persecution is aimed at bringing one to right belief and practice, it has a positive goal. Many heresy trials and later executions were supported by “Letter 93.” Later thinkers expanded the model of internal persecution against heretics to external attacks on those deemed threatening to Christianity from outside the church or outside the empire. The Crusades were largely justified on such bases.
The second is a pacifist model. Though perhaps the dominant model in the first two centuries of the church, it was quickly eclipsed by the other two perspectives. Early theologians such as Tertullian and Cyprian argued that because Christ forbade Peter to use the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christians were forbidden from using violence to achieve any ends, “but how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 19, “On Military Service.”) In the medieval period, the pacifist model was adopted by some monastic traditions (e.g., the Spiritualist Franciscans), but more commonly by what were then considered heretical movements, including the Cathars, Albigensians, Waldensians, and Czech Brethren.
The final model is often called the “Just War” perspective. The origin for this theory can be found in St. Ambrose’s response to a massacre of innocent people. He argued that while a Christian should never use violence for his or her own benefit, there were times when a Christian, out of love for neighbor, had to use violence to protect the weak or innocent. To stand by and watch the powerful attack or kill the innocent when one can do something to prevent it is nearly as great a sin as being one of the attackers. As with the coercive model, Augustine provided much of the framework for this view of violence. Augustine allowed that there were some righteous wars, fought at the command of God as punishment for iniquity. That view remained less influential and is more closely connected to the coercive model. Far more influential was his view that there were wars that were necessary for the protection of the homeland and the innocent. In this sense, he outlined two major principles that guided later thinking. First, a war must have a right (or just) cause (ius ad bellum), and one must fight the war itself justly (ius in bello). Just causes included defending the homeland, coming to the aid of an ally, punishing wicked rulers, or retaking that which was unlawfully stolen. Beyond the simple cause, it also had to be rightly intentioned—it could not be fought for vainglory’s sake, nor to take new lands. It had to have some method of state control, since states go to war, not individual people. When conducting the war, one also had responsibilities. One had to be proportional, have achievable ends, and fight discriminately (that is, between combatants, not combatants against civilian populations). Finally, and most importantly, war had to be a last resort after all other measures failed, and it had to be aimed at producing a benefit for those one sought to defend. In the medieval era, Thomas Aquinas added significant precision to Augustine’s framework.
All three models continued into the Reformation era. The advent of formally competing visions of Christianity following Luther’s excommunication by the pope and his ban by the emperor in 1521 at the Diet of Worms added new dimensions to these models. Martin Luther had occasion to comment upon all three.