Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the sale of indulgences. This practice was based on the belief that “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings,/The soul from purgatory springs”. The Reformation therefore grew out of reasoned protest against 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…”[1]


     However, too many saw the solution of this malaise to lie simply in the throwing off of constraint. They forgot that freedom does not by itself generate the knowledge of the truth, but rather the reverse: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 4.22). And so the Reformation became, as Jacob Burckhardt said, an escape from discipline…[2]


     The Protestant escape from discipline manifested itself in three ways. First, in escape from the obligation to do good works or practice asceticism – hence the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Secondly, 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. And thirdly, escape from the obligation to obey secular authorities, which we do not find in Luther himself, but in many more radical Protestants. Taken together, these amount to the fundamental essence of Protestantism: escape from the law, from the Church and from the State – in other words, from all authority…


     Above all authority the Protestant places his own mind, or reason. Now Protestant rationalism was born in the soil of Catholic rationalism, which consisted in placing the mind of one man 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.”[3]


     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.”[4]


     The Russian Slavophile I.V. Kireyevsky compared Western rationalism and the Orthodox love of wisdom thus: “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; 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 as 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 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 the reason of man ascendancy over the Divine dogmas, changing them or annihilating them in accordance with the personal reasoning of man.


     “From these three main differences between the relationships of Divine Revelation to human reason proceed the three main forms of activity of the intellectual powers of man, and at the same time the three main forms of development of its moral meaning.


     “It is natural that the more one who sincerely believes in the teaching of the Orthodox Church develops his reason, the more he will make his understanding agree with the truths of Divine Revelation.


     “It is also natural that the sincere supporter of the Latin church should have not only to submit his mind to Divine Revelation, but at the same time also to some human systems and abstract mental constructions that have been raised to the level of Divine inviolability. For that reason he will necessarily be forced to communicate a one-sided development to the movements of his mind and will be morally obliged to drown out the inner consciousness of the truth in obedience to blind authority.


     “No less natural is it 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.


     “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 sympathise 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…”[5]


     Protestant rationalism rejected the sacraments, and in general the very possibility that matter can be sanctified by the Spirit. Icons, relics, holy water and all the symbols and ceremonies of Catholic worship were rejected and destroyed. The sacrament of the Eucharist was not the Body and Blood of Christ, but only a service of remembrance, and there was no specially ordained priesthood. Even the Bible was cut down to size. Thus Luther 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.


     But in order to understand Protestantism we must go beyond the intellectual pride that it inherited from its Papist and Renaissance humanist predecessors 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 or the consolations of Mother Church another kind of certainty – that offered by justification by faith alone, and 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 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”.[6]


     Thus was Western thought directed along a path of ever-increasing individualism and subjectivism. We can see this in the relationship between the teaching of Luther and the French rationalist philosopher René Descartes. For Luther, the individual reason was the criterion of all truth. 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, not only his own existence, but the existence of everything. Of course, since this was still a believing, Christian age, Descartes sometimes wrote as if Divine Revelation were a still higher criterion of truth.[7] But 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’ Cogito was only a desiccated, secularised and intellectualised reduction of the primary axiom of Protestant rationalism. 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 and certain passages of Scripture, 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 trivial; the one had an emotional charge and the other had none (or very little); but in other respects they were very similar.


     And so philosophical rationalism was born in the soil of Protestant rationalism. Descartes would have been impossible without Calvin, and Kant – without Luther. Just as Luther allowed the individual to define for himself what truth was, so Kant allowed the individual to define for himself what right and wrong was – for the “categorical imperative” was entirely personal and subjective.


     L.A. Tikhomirov wrote: “According to the Christian understanding, although man is by nature capable of a free existence and free self-determination, he does not have autonomy, nor does he presume to seize it (recognising that he is in the hands of God, and subject to Him), but carries out His commands and follows that mission which is indicated to him by God. To declare oneself autonomous would be equivalent to falling away from obedience to God, to breaking with Him. But if separated Christians were capable of that, it would be almost impossible to incite Christians as a whole to do this for a thousand reasons. Of these the most important is that, in submitting to God, the Christian feels that he is submitting, not to some foreign principle or other, but to that which he recognises to be the Source of his highest capabilities, his Father… The striving for knowledge, which is so powerful in man, is set on a firmer ground precisely when a boundary is clearly delineated between the Divine world, which cannot be known by reason, and the created world, which is accessible to experimental knowledge through the senses. In making this delineation the Christian faith served both exact science and the spiritual life to an identically powerful degree…


     “It goes without saying that when the conviction emerged that the autonomy of man is real in some point of his existence, this naturally entrained with it the thought that autonomy is therefore possible and fruitful also in other respects, and this led to the search for new spheres of autonomy with a gradually increasing ‘liberation from God’.


     “In this way the original point of ‘liberation from God’ is rationalism, a tendency based on the supposed capacity of reason (ratio) to acquired knowledge of the truth independently of Divine Revelation, by its own efforts. In fact this is a mistake, but it is engendered by the huge power of human reason and its capacity to submit everything to its criticism. And so it seems to man that he can reject everything that is false and find everything that is real and true. The mistake in this self-confidence of reason consists in the fact that in fact it is not the source of the knowledge of facts, which are brought to the attention of man, not by his reason, but by his feelings – both physical and mystical. The real role of reason consists only in operations on the material provided by these perceptions and feelings. If they did not exist, reason would have no possibility of working, it would have not even a spark of knowledge of anything. But this controlling, discursive power is so great that it easily leads man to the illusion of thinking that the reason acquires knowledge independently. This inclination to exaggerate the power of reason has always lived and always will live in man, since the most difficult work of the reason is self-control, the evaluation of the reality of its own work. This self-control not only easily weakens in man, but is deliberately avoided by him, because it leads him to the burdensome consciousness of the limitations and relativity of those of his capacities which by their own character appears to be absolute.


     “To the extent that reason’s self-control reveals to him the necessity of searching for the absolute Source of his relative capacities and in this way leads to the search for Divine Revelation, to the same extent the weakening of self-control leads to the false feeling of the human capacity for autonomy in the sphere of cognitive thought.


     “It goes without saying that there always have been the seeds of this exaggeration of the powers of reason, that is, the seeds of rationalism, in the Christian world. But historically speaking, rationalism was promoted by Descartes. In principle his philosophy did not appear to contradict Christianity in any way. The rationalism of Descartes did not rise up against the truths of the faith, it did not preach any other faith. Descartes himself was personally very religious and even supposed that by his researches he was working for the confirmation of the truths of Christianity. In fact, of course, it was quite the other way round. Descartes’ philosophical system proceeded from the supposition that if man in seeking knowledge had no help from anywhere, - nor, that is, from God, - he would be able to find in himself such axiomatic bases of knowledge, on the assertion of which he could in a mathematical way logically attain to the knowledge of all truth.


     “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.’”[8]


     “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.”[9]


December 2/15, 2013.

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

[2]Burckhardt, Judgements on History.

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

[4]Archbishop Hilarion, Christianity or the Church?, Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1971, p. 28.

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

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

[7] 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.”

[8]Tikhomirov, Religio-filosofskie Osnovy Istorii (The Religio-Historical Foundations of History), Moscow, 1997, pp. 472-474.

[9]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, 1997, p. 74.


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