12/13/2019

Luther and Liberalism

"Although Luther provides a convenient dividing point in telling the story of liberalism in Western history, the temptation exists to mistake a convenient focal point for causation—the old post hoc (ergo propter hoc) fallacy.

If anything, Luther was a catalyst rather than a cause. Both fans and detractors treat Luther as introducing something truly de novo. Truth is, Luther was very much a man of his times. His theology was, if anything, a reaction to long existing and deepening individualistic (and, hence, liberalizing) currents in the religion and society of his day. It was because of the individualistic turn in Medieval piety prior to Luther that his theology struck the nerve that it did while earlier proto-protestant movements did not. Even the groundwork for the unintended political consequences had been set prior to Luther in the Schism and “papal revolution” (Harold Berman’s phrase in Law and Revolution for Pope Gregory VII’s reforms) of the 12th century.

My point is not to deny that Luther is an important figure in the history of the West. The question is whether he is—for better or for worse—the causal figure of so much liberal historiography. Luther may be better understood as a man more reflecting his time than creating it. Or, perhaps, a figure who served as a catalyst rather than as a causal agent."