Martin Luther’s Commentary on Religion and the ChurchJune 27, 2021
The Augustinian “pessimism”, which emphasizes man’s intrinsic sinfulness and, in a way, “imperfection”, which is explained by the “fall”, instead of the Thomasian “optimism” that man can grasp and follow the divine laws with divine intuition, became the starting point of Luther’s views on religion. In this direction, the views that influenced the renaissance rather than the reform of the period, emphasized by humanist thinkers, and glorifying human abilities and virtues were contrary to Luther (Ağaoğulları, 1997).
One of the main points that moved humanist Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus away from Luther’s views was that Luther focused on the spiritual side of man and faith, which he considered indispensable for the correction of the soul, rather than the human will and the action that is the product of this will. As a matter of fact, in 1525, Luther published his work “On the Will of the Slave” against the views coming from Erasmus that stated that people would prefer not to waste their time and talents in such a labyrinth. In this article, Luther, who defended an anti-humanist and extreme Augustinian understanding of man, strongly opposed Erasmus’s views on the following point: In Erasmus man, with his own reasoning power, can comprehend what forms of action God expects from man. According to Luther, on the contrary, we are all abandoned by God because of original sin, because we are sinful creatures. Therefore, all humans are dependent, cursed, captive, sick, and dead. Therefore, it is sinful to accept God as a being that can be measured, comprehended, and known by the human mind. People are so distant from God that they have no hope of knowing what God wants or does not want (Batur, 1988).
At this point, according to Luther, who applied to Ockhamian nominalism, which he learned at the beginning of his education, it is necessary to obey God’s commandments not because they seem right or reasonable to us, but because they are God’s commandments alone. But now there is the problem of how man can know what God’s commandments are. In this context, we see that Luther ascribes a two-sided character to God. According to Luther, God is, in a way, a being who has chosen to reveal himself with “the word”. The second aspect of God is the hidden divine being. The will of the hidden God is present in all areas, regulating and directing everything that happens in the world, and in this sense, it is omnipotent. This hidden God is beyond human understanding. Therefore, this hidden aspect of God is only feared, and from this aspect, God is worshiped with a mixture of fear and reverence.
Luther admits that God made a preliminary distinction between his servants and knew that he would save some and curse others irredeemably. In a way, this distinction, which can be expressed as God’s chosen servants and God’s damned servants, initially led Luther to despair and spiritual tensions. It was unclear which man was eternally damned by God because this foreknowledge was only found in the “hidden God” that transcends human comprehension. But Luther realized that salvation was possible by “faith” in this second aspect of God, which he later said was worshiped with fearful reverence, because it was God’s will to save those who believed in him rather than to punish the sinner. Therefore, according to Luther, the salvation of man was through faith alone. Accordingly, Luther believed that the purpose of man as a sinful being was to attain faith. (Sabine, 1969).
The expected result can now be easily predicted. The Church is useless as an institution that mediates between God and man, determining what is necessary for man’s salvation. With his views that became evident during his struggles with the Roman Church and the pope, Luther believed in the unnecessaryness of the Church as an established institution, and with the theological principles he developed, he laid the foundations of the unnecessaryness of such an intermediary institution. He even went further, emphasizing that one of the biggest sources of sin was the Catholic church and the pope. For Luther, the Pope and the Church are obstacles to man’s salvation by faith. Since faith was for Luther something that could only be attained through Jesus, the Church and the pope’s obstruction of this faith renders the pope anti-Christ.
Based on these views, it can be said that Luther opposed not only the Roman Church, but also all kinds of institutions that were obliged to mediate between the believer and God. However, a distinction that Luther refers to in his views on the Church blurs this opposition. This is due to the fact that he makes a distinction between the real church and the institution church. It is only in the sense of the religious unity of the believers that he speaks of a true church, which is not a visible institution.