Written by Vladimir Moss



     St. Peter’s cathedral at the Vatican in Rome had witnessed many of the most important events in European history: the martyrdom of St. Peter himself, the conquest of the city by St. Constantine, who built the first basilica; the crowning of Charlemagne in 800. Now the destruction of the old Orthodox building by Pope Julius II in what John Julius Norwich calls “one of the most shameless acts of official vandalism in all Christian history”[1], became the indirect cause of one of the great revolutions in human thought. Not coincidentally, the greatest enemy of Roman Catholicism in the West, Protestantism, appeared as the result of an act of vandalism against the West’s oldest monument to its Orthodox Christian past… 

     Julius II was succeeded by Pope Leo X (Giovanni de Medici). As the art historian E.H. Gombrich writes, two Medici popes were the patrons of some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, and had transformed their native city of Florence. Now, on their initiative, “the grandest and most magnificent buildings rose into the sky of Rome. Old St. Peter’s… was too plain for their taste. They planned to build a new church, far bigger and more beautiful than any seen before. But it would cost a great deal of money. Where that money came from mattered less to the popes of the day than getting hold of it and completing their wonderful church. And in their desire to please the pope, priests and monks collected money in a way which did not conform with the teachings of the Church. They made the faithful pay for the forgiveness of their sins, and called it ‘selling indulgences’. They did this in spite of the Church’s own teaching, according to which only sinner who repented might be forgiven.

     “Now there was at that time in Wittenberg, in Germany, a monk who belonged to the order of the Augustinians. His name was Martin Luther. When, in 1517, one of these sellers of indulgences came to Wittenberg to collect money for the new St. Peter’s, whose construction that year was under the supervision of Raphael, the most famous painter in the world, Luther was determined to draw attention to the irreligious nature of this way of raising funds. He nailed a kind of poster to the doors of the church, on which he had written ninety-five theses – or points for discussion – denouncing the trade in divine forgiveness. What shocked Luther most was that people might think that they could atone for their sins with money, that God’s free, forgiving mercy could be bought. He had always seen himself as a sinner, living, like all sinners, in fear of God’s wrath. Only one thing could save him from God’s punishment and that was God’s infinite mercy which, as Luther believed, could not be bought, for if it could, it would no longer be mercy. Before God, who sees all and knows all, even a good person is a sinner who deserves to be punished. Only faith in God’s freely given mercy can save him, and nothing else.

     “In the bitter arguments that broke out on the subject of indulgences and their abuse, Luther’s opinions took on an increasingly insistent and forceful tone, both in his teaching and his writings. Nothing but faith matters, said Luther. All else is superfluous. And that also goes for the Church and the priests who, when they celebrate Mass, intercede on behalf of the faithful so that they, too, may share in God’s mercy. God’s mercy needs no intercessors. All an individual needs to be saved if is his own unshakable belief and faith in his God. Faith means believing in the great mysteries of the Gospel, believing that we are eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood from the chalice when we take Holy Communion. No one can help another person to obtain God’s grace. Every believer is, as it were, his own priest. A priest of the Church is not more than a teacher and helper, and as such may live like other men, and even marry: A believer must not be content to accept this teaching of the Church. He must look to the Bible for God’s purpose and seek it out for himself. For, in Luther’s opinion, the truth was only to be found in the Bible.”[2]

     Thus began the second great intellectual revolution in the history of modern Europe after the liberal humanism of the Renaissance – the Protestant Reformation. All the main Protestant churches were founded in the following years: the Lutheran, the Anglican (1534), the Calvinist (1555), the Presbyterian (1560), the Congregationalist (1582), and the Baptist (1609). 


     Almost all the main ideas of Protestantism had appeared centuries before, in the Proto-Protestantism of such men as the Italian Marsilius, the Englishman John Wycliffe and the Czech Jan Hus. But by about 1450 they had been crushed by the resurgent power of the post-Avignon papacy. What enabled them finally to revive and take root in the early sixteenth century was, first, the heady atmosphere of intellectual freedom engendered by Renaissance humanism. And secondly, the invention of the printing press. 

     The printing press was invented in Mainz between 1446 and 1450 by Johannes Gutenburg. “By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. The operation of a press became synonymous with the enterprise of printing, and lent its name to a new branch of media, ‘the press’.”[3]

     Luther’s tracts were written in German, and were immediately spread far and wide through the new technology. Apart from their impact on theological discussion, they gave an important impulse to the unity and self-consciousness of the German nation. Luther’s translation of the Bible “into sharp, pungent, popular German”[4] was the most culturally influential work to come off Gutenberg’s presses. It has been called “the central document in the evolution of the German language”, comparable to the influence of the King James translation of the Bible on English. Combined with the fine German-language hymns like Ein feste burg that Luther created for the people, this gave the Protestant religion an attractiveness that the Catholics had difficulty in matching.

     Printing was crucial to the Reformation’s success. “Cities with at least one printing press,” writes Niall Ferguson, “were significantly more likely to adopt Protestantism than cities without printing, but it was cities with multiple competing printers that were most likely to turn Protestant.”[5] In fact, the invention of the press gave an enormous impetus to learning of all kinds. Not since the great Irish monastic schools of the early Middle Ages were so many people able to read, not only Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew as a result of the printing revolution. Of course, this was partly the result of the emigration of many Greek scholars to the West after 1453. But printing spread Greek scholarship further.

     Robert Tombs writes: “There was a desire to re-examine the sources of beliefs by studying original texts. In the 1430s, for example, philology had demonstrated that the supposedly fourth-century ‘Donation of Constantine’, which the papacy had claimed as the origin of its temporal authority, was a forgery.

     “By far the most important new text was the Bible itself. Newly acquired knowledge of languages meant that humanist scholars could study the recently published Greek and Hebrew originals, even finding mistakes in the orthodox Latin ‘Vulgate’, St. Jerome’s thousand-year-old translation on which the Western Church had based its teachings. The most famous humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, in 1516 produced an edition of the Greek New Testament with a new parallel Latin translation giving changes of wording – significant because fundamental beliefs could hang on particular phrases, even words. Humanists such as Erasmus[6], John Colet, the dean of St. Paul’s, and Thomas More, lawyer, member of Parliament and 1529 Chancellor, had hoped that these intellectual advances would lead to religious reform and renewal. But they became weapons in an assault on authority.

     “Printing (from the 1430s) and cheaper paper meant that copies of ancient texts and modern translations could be made available outside the clerical and aristocratic elite, even to ordinary literate people – the gentry, merchants, yeomen, artisans. Printed Bibles appeared in German in 1466, and in Italian, Dutch, French, Spanish and Czech in the 1470s. Lay readers ceased to be dependent on the clergy to transmit the word of God. Instead of asking what God meant (which required experts to explain) they began to ask simply what God said, and decide on his meaning themselves. England was well behind on this because of strict anti-Lollard legislation.

     “Late medieval Christianity, like most religions, invested enormously in mechanisms of salvation: ceremonies, rituals, chapels, chantries, shrines, relics, statues, pilgrimages and indulgences. This familiar, beautiful, mysterious and yet accessible form of worship provided comfort and hope. Most people clung to it. Most of the cultural glories of Europe derived from it, as did the power and wealth of the Church. But it could become a squalid transaction between man and God by which favour, forgiveness and salvation were bought by performing a quasi-magical act, paying a fee, making a material gift to God or a saint, or bequeathing money for posthumous prayers. Intellectual scepticism could draw on traditional resentment of the clergy’s wealth, as in the early example of Lollardy. ‘Jesus said, “Feed my lambs,” not “Shear my sheep”, joked English reformers.’

     “Luther’s open challenge in 1517 was a denunciation of the ‘sale’ of indulgences, by which punishment for sin could be remitted by a cash donation to the Church – currently, to build the magnificent basilica of St. Peter in Rome. Luther rejected the whole system of belief on which this kind of piety was based. Drawing on ideas of the fifth-century St. Augustine [and the first-century St. Paul], he denied that merit or forgiveness could be gained by anything that sinful man could do: salvation depended solely on the mercy of God. Human beings could do nothing to deserve this mercy: God chose them to receive it. Though this idea had always been present in Western Christian teaching, the conclusions that Luther began to draw were that many of the activities of the Church, including most of the sacraments, were best useless and at worst blasphemous, and that its ruling authorities were corrupt and oppressive, in effect perpetrating a huge confidence trick on Christians.

     “Luther’s message appealed to many educated people, first of all in the German and Swiss cities, who were already emancipating themselves intellectually from the clergy by reading the Bible, which seemed to be the true way to faith, godliness and salvation. Luther also appealed, as Wyclif had done more than a century earlier, to nobles and princes for whom bishops, abbots and the Pope were powerful and wealthy rivals. Luther and his followers believed that religion and society needed authority, but that Christian princes, not the Pope, would yield it. It turned out that authority and order were not so easily preserved amid the moral and intellectual revolution Luther had ignited. Over much of northern Europe, crowds smashed statues in churches. In 1524, popular revolts, the so-called Peasants’ War, began to sweep across Central Europe from the Rhine to Poland. Ancient social tensions were inflamed by religious radicalism, despite Luther’s furious denunciation of ‘thieving murdering peasants’. Many thousands were eventually slaughtered, tortured and executed in the biggest ideological upheaval in Europe since before the French Revolution. No one could doubt that religious dissension affected everything.

     “Amid this European turmoil, in 1526 a young former Oxford scholar, William Tyndale, began to print copies in Cologne of his English translation of the New Testament from the Greek, undertaken in defiance of English law. They were seized in a raid on his printer, but he began again in Worms, and then again in Antwerp. Tyndale… believed that biblical interpretation did not require clerical authority, for it was simple and unambiguous: ‘The scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense’. Perhaps 16,000 copies of his translation were smuggled into England over the next ten years (compared with the hundreds of manuscript copies the Lollards had managed to produce). He is supposed to have said to a critic that ‘ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost’. This was a truly revolutionary ambition…”[7]


     Thanks to the accessibility of Luther’s printed works, “Many people were won over by his argument. When the pope came to hear of it, he threatened to excommunicate Luther. But Luther’s following was by now so great that he no longer cared. He burned the pope’s letter in public, and then he really was excommunicated. Next he announced that he and his followers had left the Church altogether. Germany was in an uproar, and many people sided with him, for the luxury-loving pope, with all his wealth, was not at all popular in Germany. Nor was there much opposition from the German princes, for if the bishops and archbishops were to lose their power, the Church’s vast estates would fall to them. So they, too, joined the Reformation, which was the name that was given to Luther’s attempt to reawaken the Christian piety of old.”[8]

     The champion of Roman Catholicism turned out to be the new Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who in 1519 ascended the throne of the Holy Roman Empire at the age of nineteen. In 1521 he summoned Luther to appear before him at the Imperial Diet in Worms. “Already excommunicated by Leo X,” writes Bridget Heal, “Luther faced condemnation by the pope’s secular counterpart, the most powerful monarch in Christendom. Even more than the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther’s appearance at the Rhineland city was a defining moment in the Reformation. Luther and his companions spent ten days travelling west from Wittenberg and were greeted enthusiastically along the way. When the reformer arrived at Worms, 2,000 people supposedly gathered in the streets, testimony to the public interest Luther had awoken. On April 17th, as he went to the Diet, people climbed onto rooftops in their eagerness to see him; his arrival was described in terms that consciously echoes the story of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Clothed in a simple black cassock, he stood alone before the assembled might and splendour of the Empire. He was presented with a pile of books and was asked whether they were his and whether he would retract what he had written. He requested an adjournment and when he appeared again the following day, he delivered an extraordinarily courageous speech, refusing to recant and concluding that ‘unless I am convinced by the testimony of scriptures I have quoted and by clear reason… I am bound by the scriptures and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.’ According to the account of events published by his supporters shortly afterwards, he added: ‘I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.

     “The events at Worms propelled his message far beyond those concerned with theology and the reform of the German church. His defiance of the emperor and of the secular and ecclesiastical estates of the Empire became, even during his own lifetime, legendary. It made him into a hero…”[9] 

     When the emperor asked Luther to recant, he insisted that he would do so only on the basis of arguments drawn from Scripture: “My conscience is bound by the word of God, and for that reason I can will renounced nothing, for it is dangerous to act against one’s conscience… So help me God. Amen.”

     These words represent the essence of his creed and of his revolutionary challenge to the whole of Western Christendom. For by placing his individual conscience above every collective authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical, he undermined all authority, replacing it with the most individualist kind of anarchism. This individualism is the root dogma of Protestantism, more fundamental than its well-known teachings on Holy Scripture, on faith and works, and on the Church. 

     Of course, Luther also appealed to Scripture, to the Word of God, as a figleaf for his anarchism. But what was Holy Scripture? Luther himself would judge that. “Notoriously,” writes John Barton, “he went further than almost any Christian before or since in concluding that certain books were not an authentic expression of the gospel, and when he translated the Bible he removed them to an appendix. The books in question are Esther (demoted because it nowhere mentions God), Hebrews, James and Revelation. Conversely, Luther was prepared to say which books were the most important, the ‘truest and noblest books’: John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter and 1 John… Thus Luther’s criticism of authority reached even to criticism of the authority of parts of the Bible itself, in the name of principles derived from what he took to be the Bible’s overall drift.”[10]

     However, by making every individual believer the interpreter of Scripture, Luther undermined scriptural authority also. Scripture, the written word of God, was only a seeming authority, a fig-leaf to hide the real authority, the believer’s self-will. The only authority left was the naked ego…

     And yet even the holy Apostle Paul did not rely on his own individual conscience and revelation alone, but checked his convictions against those of the other apostles. As he writes: “I communicated to them that Gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any chance I might run, or had run, in vain” (Galatians 2.2). For Paul knew that although he had received the Gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, he could still err because of the sin that still dwelt in him as it dwells in all mortal men. For the truth is given collectively to the Church, “the pillar and ground of the Truth” (I Timothy 3.15), whose existence and authority will survive even the gates of hell (Matthew 16.18). But any individual member of the Church, no matter who he is, may fall away from it and therefore from the truth. That is why St. Paul disciplined his body, “lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (I Corinthians 9.27) as a witness to the truth.

     Luther’s attitude is what we may call Protestant rationalism; it was born in the soil of Catholic rationalism, which placed the mind of one man, the Pope, above the Catholic consciousness of the Church, the Mind of Christ. Protestantism rejected Papism, but did not reject its underlying principle. Thus instead of placing the mind of one man above the Church, it placed the mind of every man, every believer, above it. As Luther himself declared: “In matters of faith each Christian is for himself Pope and Church.”[11] And so Protestantism, as New Hieromartyr Archbishop Hilarion (Troitsky) put it, “placed a papal tiara on every German professor and, with its countless number of popes, completely destroyed the concept of the Church, substituting faith with the reason of each separate personality.”[12] 

     As Frank Furedi writes, “His defiant stand, would eventually provide legitimation for disobeying all forms of authority….

     “Did Luther really hurl the legendary words – ‘Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other’ – at his accusers? In a sense it does not matter. Luther did not merely assert the authority of individual conscience to justify his own actions: he advanced a compelling case for the value of people being able to act in accordance with the dictates of their conscience. In so doing his argument implicitly called into question the right of external authority to exercise power over the inner life of people.

     “The distinction that Luther drew about the nature of authority represented an important step in the conceptualisation of a new limit on its exercise. His Treatise on Good Works (1520) asserted that ‘the power of the temporal authority, whether it does right or wrong, cannot harm the soul’. This idealisation of the soul and its protected status from external authority encouraged European culture to devote greater interest in individual conscience and eventually to endow the self with moral authority.

     “In helping to free the inner person from the power of external authority, Luther’s theology contributed to the weakening of the very concept of external authority, including that of divine authority [my italics – V.M.] The freeing of the inner person from the power of external authority restricted the exercise of absolute authority in all its forms. ”[13]

     The Russian Slavophile Ivan Vasilievich Kireyevsky compared Western rationalism, both Catholic and Protestant, with the Orthodox love of wisdom as follows: “The main trait distinguishing Orthodox Christianity from the Latin confession and the Protestant teaching of the faith in their influence on the intellectual and moral development of man consists in the fact that the Orthodox Church strictly adheres to the boundary between Divine Revelation and human reason, that it preserves without any change the dogmas of Revelation as they have existed from the first days of Christianity and have been confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils, not allowing the hand of man to touch their holiness or allowing human reason to modify their meaning and expression in accordance with its temporary systems. But at the same time the Orthodox Church does not restrict reason in its natural activity and in its free striving to search out the truths not communicated to it by Revelation; but it does not give to any rational system or plausible view of science the status of infallible truth, ascribing to them an identical inviolability and holiness to that possessed by Divine Revelation.

     “The Latin church, on the contrary, does not know any firm boundaries between human reason and Divine Revelation. It ascribes to its visible head or to a local council the right to introduce a new dogma into the number of those revealed and confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils; to some systems of human reason it ascribes the exceptional right of ascendancy over others, and in this way, even if it does not directly destroy the revealed dogmas, it changes their meaning, while it restricts human reason in the freedom of its natural activity and limits its sacred right and duty to seek from a rapprochement between human truths and Divine truths, natural truths and revealed ones. 

     “The Protestant teachings of the faith are based on the same annihilation of the boundary between human reason and Divine revelation, with this difference from the Latin teaching, however, that they do not raise any human point of view or systematic mental construction to the level of Divine Revelation, thereby restricting the activity of reason; but, on the contrary, they give human reason ascendancy over the Divine dogmas, changing them or annihilating them in accordance with the personal reasoning of man…

     “It is natural that the follower of the Protestant confession, recognizing reason to be the chief foundation of truth, should in accordance with the measure of his education more and more submit his faith itself to his personal reasoning, until the concepts of natural reason take the place for him of all the Traditions of Divine Revelation and the Holy Apostolic Church.

     “[However,] where only pure Divine Revelation is recognized to be higher than reason – Revelation which man cannot alter in accordance with his own reasonings, but with which he can only bring his reasoning into agreement, - there, naturally, the more educated a man or a people is, the more its concepts will be penetrated with the teaching of the faith, for the truth is one and the striving to find this oneness amidst the variety of the cognitive and productive actions of the mind is the constant law of all development. But in order to bring the truths of reason into agreement with the truth of Revelation that is above reason a dual activity of reason is necessary. It is not enough to arrange one’s rational concepts in accordance with the postulates of faith, to choose those that agree with them and exclude those that contradict them, and thereby purify them of all contradiction: it is also necessary to raise the very mode of rational activity to the level at which reason can sympathize with faith and where both spheres merge into one seamless contemplation of the truth. Such is the aim determining the direction of the mental development of the Orthodox Christian, and the inner consciousness of this sought-after region of mental activity is constantly present in every movement of his reason, the breathing of his mental life…”[14]


     Having established that the root of Lutheranism is simply self-will, the exaltation of the human mind above all authority, secular and ecclesiastical, human and Divine, let us return and look more closely at its teaching on faith and works.

     The first protest of Lutheran Protestantism was against an unquestionably evil work, the practice of indulgences, from which was derived the teaching of the superiority of faith to works… Now the practice of indulgences was based on the belief that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings,/The soul from purgatory springs”. The Reformation grew out of a reasoned protest against this and other undoubted abuses by the Roman Catholic Church. As Jacques Barzun writes: “The priest, instead of being a teacher, was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety, was an idle profiteer; the bishop, instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and a businessman. One of them here or there might be pious and a scholar – he showed that goodness was not impossible. But too often the bishop was a boy of twelve, his influential family having provided early for his future happiness. The system was rotten…”[15]

     This reaction against the hypocrisy of the clergy led to the teaching that good works – especially such hypocritical good works as those that produced indulgences from the clergy – were not necessary for salvation. In fact, sin is so deeply rooted in human nature that it cannot be extirpated. Nevertheless, salvation is given to us by faith in Christ’s sacrifice, which wipes out all sin without the necessity of good works.  “Faith alone,” wrote Luther in The Freedom of a Christian (1520), “without works, justifies, frees and saves.” For that reason Luther rejected the Epistle of James and Revelation because of their emphasis on the important of good works.

     However, too many interpreted this teaching to mean that good works are unnecessary, even vain. Since faith alone justifies the sinner, why undertake good works such as fasting, virginity and alms-giving? And so the Reformation became, as Jacob Burckhardt said, not the restoration of a discipline that the Catholics had violated, but an escape from discipline…[16]

     The Protestant escape from discipline manifested itself in three ways. First, as we have seen, in escape from the obligation to follow the conciliar conscience of the Church – hence the Protestant doctrine of the infallibility of the individual conscience and the individual’s interpretation of Scripture. The Holy Fathers were not authorities for Luther – he called St. John Chrysostom “only a foolish babbler”. Secondly, in escape from the obligation to do good works or practice asceticism. And thirdly, in escape from the obligation to obey not only ecclesiastical, but also secular authorities, which we do not find in Luther himself, but in many more radical Protestants, especially the Calvinists. Taken together, these allow us to define the fundamental essence of Protestantism: escape from the law, from the Church and from the State – in other words, from all authority.

     Now the most basic good work of a Christian is participation in the sacraments. While baptism was retained by the Lutherans, and some form of Eucharistic service, the significance and centrality of these sacraments to the Christian life was greatly diminished, and in general the very idea that matter can be sanctified by the Spirit in the form of icons, relics, holy water, holy oil and all the symbols and ceremonies of Catholic worship, was discarded.

     The Swiss Reformer Zwingli, who greatly influenced the first Anglican Archbishop Cranmer, rejected the belief that the Eucharist was, after consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ, treating it as a service of remembrance, a memorial meal, no more. Luther did believe in the Body and Blood of Christ; but he thought that it coexisted with the bread and the wine. So he did not believe in what the Catholics called Transubstantiation.

     One might have expected that the Reformers would here encounter some difficulties, in that if, as William Tyndale said, “The scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense”, then there could be no doubt that the Eucharist was the Body and Blood of Christ insofar Christ said as much clearly and unambiguously in the Holy Scriptures (Matthew 26.26-28; John 6.53-56). Moreover, the whole of Church tradition for the last 1500 years had asserted that these passages were indeed to be interpreted literally. But the Protestants rejected the literal interpretation, thereby showing that their real motivation was not obedience to Scripture alone, but revolution – the overthrow of traditional Christianity.

     In view of this selective, biased and inconsistent approach to Holy Scripture, it is not to be wondered at that even the text of the Bible itself was cut down to size by Luther’s rationalistic axe. Thus he reduced the number of canonical books, rejecting the so-called “apocryphal” books of the Old Testament and casting doubt on such New Testament books as the Epistle of James. Moreover, it was from the Protestants (and Jews such as Spinoza) that the terribly destructive so-called “Higher Criticism” of the Bible began. Nothing was sacred for the Protestants, but only the disembodied, thinking mind of the individual believer.


     What gave Luther this boldness, this extreme self-confidence in the infallibility of his own conscience and his own reasoning? The answer lies in another characteristic and fundamental doctrine of Protestantism, predestination. It was the Protestants’ belief that they were elect and saved that gave the Reformers the boldness – more exactly, the extreme folly – to raise their minds above all established authority. Unlike Erasmus, who believed in free will, Luther believed, as the title of one his works declares, in the enslavement of free will (De Servo Arbitrio), which made salvation a matter of God’s will alone. Thus he wrote: “With regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, (man) has no ‘free-will’, but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.”[17]

     “Predestination,” wrote Christopher Hill, “is at the heart of Protestantism. Luther saw that it was the only guarantee of the Covenant. ‘For if you doubt, or disdain to know that God foreknows and wills all things, not contingently but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe confidently, trust to and depend upon his promises?’ Without predestination, ‘Christian faith is utterly destroyed, and the promises of God and the whole Gospel entirely fall to the ground for the greatest and only consolation of Christians in their adversities is the knowing that God lies not, but does all things immutably, and that his will cannot be resisted, changed or hindered’. Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. Luther declared that he would not have wanted free will, even if it could have been granted to him: only God can make salvation certain, for some it not for all. Indeed, the whole point for Luther lies in the uniqueness of the elect. Once touched with divine grace they are differentiated from the mass of humanity: their consciousness of salvation will make them work consciously to glorify God. The psychological effects of this conscious segregation of a group from the mass is enormous.

     “Calvin went a step further and boldly proclaimed that God was useless to humanity unless he had knowable purposes which we can trust and with which we can cooperate. ‘What avails it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do… How can the idea of God enter your mind without instantly giving rise to the thought that since you are his workmanship, you are bound, by the very law of creation, to submit to his authority?’ ‘Ignorance of Providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it the highest happiness.’ Faith gives us ‘sure certainty and complete security of mind’, of a sort that is self-evident to those who possess it and inexplicable to those who do not.

     “Men have often commented on the apparent paradox of a predestinarian theological system producing in its adherents an emphasis on effort, on moral energy. One explanation that has been offered is that, for the Calvinist, faith revealed itself in works, and that therefore the only way in which an individual could be assured of his own salvation was by scrutinizing his behaviour carefully night and day to see where he did in fact bring forth works worthy of salvation…

     “But I am not entirely convinced that this is the sole explanation. It is highly sophisticated. Most of the evidence for it among the preachers comes from the later seventeenth century, when for other reasons works were being emphasized once more. I believe that the resolution of the paradox is psychologically simpler, if philosophically more complex. Salvation, consciousness of election, consisted of the turning of the heart towards God. A man knew that he was saved because he felt, at some stage of his life, an inner satisfaction, a glow, which told him that he was in direct communion with God. Cromwell was said to have died happy when assured that grace once known could never be lost: for once he had been in a state of grace. We are not dealing here with the mystical ecstasy of a recluse: we are dealing rather with the conscience of the average gentleman, merchant or artisan. What gave him consciousness of election was not the painful scrutiny of his works, for the preachers never tired of telling him that none could keep the commandment, that ‘we cannot cooperate with any grace of God’ unless there is ‘a special spirit infused’. It was the sense of elation and power that justified him and his worldly activities, that gave him self-confidence in a world of economic uncertainty and political hostility. The elect were those who thought they were elect, because they had an inner faith which made them feel free, whatever their external difficulties.

     “Philosophically, the argument is circular. But Calvinism did not exist primarily as a philosophical system. It gave courage and confidence to a group of those who believed themselves to be God’s elect. It justified them, in this world and the next… ‘Men, who have assurance that they are to inherit heaven, have a way of presently taking possession of the earth.’”[18]

     Thus in order to understand Protestantism we must go beyond the intellectual pride that it inherited from Papism and Renaissance humanism to the emotional vacuum that it sought to fill – and filled with some success, although the new wine it proposed to pour into the old bottles of Christendom turned out to be distinctly vinegary. For it was not their protests against the abuses of Papism that made Luther and Calvin such important figures: Wycliff and Hus, Machiavelli and Erasmus and many others had been exposing these abuses long before Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Worms. What distinguished Luther and Calvin was that they were able to offer hungry hearts that no longer believed in the certainties of Holy Tradition another kind of certainty – that offered by faith in one’s individual infallibility and salvation, giving to those who no longer believed in the consolations of Mother Church another kind of consolation – that offered by predestination to salvation. All that was necessary was to say: I believe, and the believer could be sure that he was saved! Nor did he need the Church or the Priesthood or the Sacraments or good works to be saved. For faith alone justifies, and all believing men are “priests for ever…  worthy to appear before God, to pray for others, and to teach one another mutually the things that are of God”.[19]

     Thus was Western thought directed along a path of ever-increasing individualism and subjectivism. We can see this in the close relationship between the thought of Luther and that of the French rationalist philosopher René Descartes. For Luther, the individual’s consciousness that he believed was the guarantee of his salvation. For Descartes, the existence of this disembodied, thinking mind – a mind free from the limitations of space and time – was the first axiom of all knowledge: Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”. From the existence of the thinking mind he deduced his own existence, and from that the existence of everything else.

     Of course, since this was still a believing, Christian age, the existence of some objective truths that were independent of the subject was still affirmed.  Descartes sometimes wrote as if Divine Revelation were a still higher criterion of truth than his own thought. Thus he wrote in The Principles of Philosophy: “Above all else we must impress on our memory the overriding rule that whatever God has revealed to us must be accepted as more certain than anything else. And although the light of reason may, with the utmost clarity and evidence appear to suggest something different, we must still put our entire faith in Divine authority rather than in our own judgement.” However, the course of western philosophy after Descartes showed that, once human reason is given a place that is not fitting to it, it squeezes out Divine Revelation altogether.

     Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was only a desiccated, secularised and intellectualised version of Luther’s “I believe, therefore I am saved”. The difference between Luther and Descartes was the difference between theological rationalism and philosophical rationalism: the Protestant deduced the certainty of salvation from his personal faith, while the philosopher derived the certainty of his existence from his personal thought. The one deduction was momentous in its consequences and the other was relatively trivial (those who take philosophy seriously are a very small minority); the one had a big emotional charge and the other had very little. But in essence they were very similar. In this way was philosophical rationalism born from Protestant rationalism. The philosophical rationalism of a Descartes or a Kant was unthinkable without the religious rationalism of a Luther or a Calvin.

     “As… V.A. Kozhevnikov points out in his study of mangodhood, ‘the Cartesian: “I think, therefore I am” already gave a basis for godmanhood in the sense of human self-affirmation.’ In fact, in that all-encompassing doubt, which was permitted by Descartes before this affirmation, all knowledge that does not depend on the reasoning subject is rejected, and it is admitted that if a man had no help from anyone or anything, his mind would manage with its own resources to learn the truth. ‘The isolation and self-sufficiency of the thinking person is put as the head of the corner of the temple of philosophical wisdom.’ With such a terminus a quo, ‘the purely subjective attainment of the truth, remarks V. Kozhevnikov, ‘becomes the sole confirmation of existence itself. The existent is confirmed on the basis of the conceivable, the real – on the intellectual… The purely human, and the solely human, acquires its basis and justification in the purely human mind. The whole evolution of the new philosophical thinking from Descartes to Kant revolves unfolds under the conscious or unnoticed, but irresistible attraction in this direction.’”[20]

     “The first step of the Reformation,” writes V.A. Zhukovsky, “decided the fate of the European world: instead of the historical abuses of ecclesiastical power, it destroyed the spiritual… power of the Church herself; it incited the democratic mind to rebel against her being above judgement; in allowing revelation to be checked, it shook the faith, and with the faith everything holy. For this holiness was substituted the pagan wisdom of the ancients; the spirit of contradiction was born; the revolt against all authority, Divine as well as human, began. This revolt went along two paths: on the first – the destruction of the authority of the Church produced rationalism (the rejection of the Divinity of Christ), whence came… atheism (the rejection of the existence of God); and on the other – the concept of autocratic power as proceeding from God gave way to the concept of the social contract. Thence came the concept of the autocracy of the people, whose first step is representative democracy, second step – democracy, and third step – socialism and communism. Perhaps there is also a fourth and final step: the destruction of the family, and in consequence of this the exaltation of humanity, liberated from every obligation that might in any way limit its personal independence, to the dignity of completely free cattle. And so two paths: on the one hand, the autocracy of the human mind and the annihilation of the Kingdom of God; on the other – the dominion of each and every one, and the annihilation of society.”[21] 

May 28 / June 10, 2020.


[1]Norwich, France. From Gaul to De Gaulle, London: John Murray, 2018, p. 116.

[2]Gombrich, A Little History of the World, London: Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 180-182.


[4] Andrew Marr, A History of the World, London: Pan, 2012, p. 277.

[5]Ferguson, The Square and the Tower, London: Penguin, 2018, p. 83.

[6] The Dutch Christian humanist and Bible scholar Desiderius Erasmus was an especially important figure. If the Reformation had proceeded along his, rather than Luther’s lines, history might have been very different. “His slogan was Ad fontes: ‘Back to the wellsprings!’ Erasmus believed that the authentic Christian faith of the early church had been buried under a mound of lifeless medieval theology. By stripping away these later accretions and going back to the sources – the Bible and the Fathers of the Church – Christians would recover the living kernel of the Gospels and experience new birth” (Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, New York: Ballantine Books, 2001, p. 5). (V.M.)

[7]Tombs, The English and their History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, pp. 160-162.

[8]Gombrich, op. cit., p. 182.

[9]Heal, “Martin Luther and the German Reformation”, History Today, March, 2017, pp. 34-35.

[10]Barton, A History of the Bible, London: Allen Lane, 2019, pp. 394-395.

[11]Martin Luthers Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Weimar, 1885, 405, 35. Quoted by Deacon John Whiteford in ORTHODOX@LISTSERV.INDIANA.EDU, September 6, 1999.

[12]Troitsky, Christianity or the Church?, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1971, p. 28.

[13]Furedi, “The Invention of Individual Freedom”, History Today, April, 2017, p. 7.

[14]Kireyevsky, “Indifferentizm” (“Indifferentism”), in Razum na puti k istine (Reason on the Path to Truth),Moscow, 2002, pp. 88-91.

[15]Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 11.

[16]Burckhardt, Judgements on History.

[17]Luther, “Bondage of the Will,” Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. by Dillenberger, Anchor Books, 1962 p. 190.

[18]Hill, God’s Englishman, London: Penguin, 1970, pp. 211-213.

[19] Luther, On the Liberty of the Christian.

[20]Tikhomirov, Religioznie-filosofskie osnovy istorii (The Religio-Philosophical Foundations of History),Moscow, 1997, p. 474.

[21]Zhukovsky, “O stikhotvorenii ‘Sviataia Rus’” (“On the Poem ‘Holy Rus’”), in V.F. Ivanov, Russkaia Intelligentsia i Masonstvo: ot Petra I do Nashikh Dnej (The Russian Intelligentsia and Masonry: from Peter I to our Days), Harbin, 1934, Moscow: “Moskva”, 1997, p. 74.


‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company