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Martin Luther and the new paideuma

Wednesday, 4 Dec 2013

Martin Luther on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn First posted on Monday, 28 January 2013 at 21:28

I have been interested for some time in the way modern thinking arose out of the Reformation period - hence the earlier blogs dated Monday 14th January and Thursday 17th January.

Luther did not live to see anything even approximating to the full fruition of the social change wrought by the Reformation his actions had triggered.He was aware, however, of the direction of travel and, as can be seen in his later writings, it left him in despair. Having vented his anger against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church, he lived to see the forces of the Reformation leading to the very acceptance of the usurious practices, of Fugger the Rich and others, that he had warned must be kept in check. Society had turned in the very opposite direction to that which he had intended in his criticism of the Church’s financial malpractices and later pleas to the Christian nobility to keep usury in check. The banking culture emanating from commercial centres such as Antwerp could not be associated solely with the Jews. After all, the Pope’s banker, Fugger, the most successful banker of his day, was a Catholic. However, the myriad of accusations that Luther levelled against the Jews, most notably in On the Jews and Their Lies,demonstrate that he associated the lending of money for interest with a Judaic frame of mind, the influence of which had long since broken free of the restrictions laid down by the Councils of Lyons (1274) and Vienne (1312).

Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch­ thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security. (Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543)

Many commentators have attempted to separate these railings of the older Luther from the young reforming radical on the cathedral steps of Wittenberg. However, Luther’s contempt for usury was consistent throughout his life. The harshness of tone in his old age simply reflected the increased despair at the pace of the revolution in social attitudes that was taking place before his very eyes.

In his sermons, Luther preached against covenantal Christianity, advocating instead the theology of the cross.

This difference between the Law and the Gospel is the height of knowledge in Christendom. Every person and all persons who assume or glory in the name of Christian should know and be able to state this difference. If this ability is lacking, one cannot tell a Christian from a heathen or aJew; of such supreme importance is this differentiation. This is why St. Paul so strongly insists on a clean-cut and proper differentiating of these two doctrines. (Martin Luther, Sermon on Galatians, 1532)

He must have seen, however, that a return to the Law was taking hold in early post-Reformation Europe and he would have interpreted this movement with dread. He new that in the early days of the church the unbelieving mind had interpreted the cross as nonsense — a religion founded on the crushing, filthy death of a man cursed by God was foolishness to Greeks and an offense to Jews, depending on whether their sin was intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness. In the theological turn taken, soon to be full-blown Calvinism, he could see the same rejection of the cross and cycle of sin repeated.

As Luther saw it, the living Word of God in Christ ceased to be a restraint upon economic self-interest. The Law of the Old Testament had instead become allied with the self-righteous economic virtues of the age as a reason why self-interest should be given free play, an attitude that would later be systematised economically by Adam Smith and philosophically by John Locke. The same values that led Luther to condemn the financial chicanery of Leo X were those that left him exasperated at the new paideuma or, as Luther would understand it, the Judaic paiduema that was now taking hold.

John Dunn.

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