Written by Vladimir Moss



     What is the root dogma of Protestantism, more fundamental than its well-known teachings on Holy Scripture, on faith and work, and on the Church? We can find the answer to this question, not so much in any printed works of the Reformers, as in their most famous historical encounter. 

     Luther’s printed works spread rapidly, and in 1521 he was summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V 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…”[1]

     Luther’s reported words – “Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other” – 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 authority, whether secular or ecclesiastical, he undermined all authority, replacing it with the most individualist kind of anarchism. Of course, he also appealed to Scripture, to the Word of God. But this was a diversion: by making every unaided individual believer the interpreter of Scripture, he effectively 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…

     This is what we may call Protestant rationalism; it was born in the soil of Catholic rationalism, which consisted in placing 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

     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. ”[4]

     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 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]


     What gives the Protestants this boldness, this extreme self-confidence in the infallibility of their own conscience and their own reasoning? The answer lies in another characteristic and fundamental doctrine of Protestantism, predestination. It was their 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.

     “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.’”[6]


     “But is not conscience truly infallible?” one may object. “Is it not, as the expression goes, ‘the eye of God in the soul of man’? And as such, will it not always indicate to us the truth?” 

     Conscience is indeed the eye of God in the soul of man. And if a man’s soul is purified to reflect the light of God, then his conscience will always reveal to him the truth. But the tragedy of the human condition is that man’s soul is very often – usually – not purified from the passions that hinder the pure light of God from entering the soul; so that when a man thinks he is following his conscience and God he is in fact following the fallen desires of his heart, of which the prophet says: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah17.9).

     That is why Holy Scripture itself forbids the individual interpretation of Scripture: as St. Peter says, “No Scripture is of any private interpretation” (II Peter 1.20). Our understanding of Scripture, as of all theological subjects, must be tested and corrected in accordance with the conciliar mind of the Church, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3.15), to which alone is given the promise of infallibility. The holy apostles and Fathers of the Church were unanimous in their understanding of the faith because they were free from passion and trained in obedience to the Mind of Christ as manifested in the Church. The Protestants, by contrast, have split into a myriad of warring sects precisely because each individual Protestant is permitted to understand the faith in his own way with no conciliar authority to guide and correct him. They have made gods of their minds, with the result that they have fallen into the abyss of idolatry. Thinking to see clearly with the eye of their darkened consciences, they have fallen into a pit from which it is very difficult to escape until they recognize their blindness. For, as the Lord said: “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6.22-23).


January 24 / February 6, 2019.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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