51. The Protestant Reformation: Martin Luther
In 1482, Johan Reuchlin, one of the first German humanists, travelled to Italy, specifically to Florence and Rome, to receive a more thorough education on the new ideas of the time. There he had contact with the Neoplatonic Academy which influenced greatly his studies, in particular with the Marquis of Mirandola. From that moment he became fascinated with the Christian Qabbalistic view, rather than the Hermetic one. It was also in Italy that Reuchlin studied Hebrew with Obadiah Sforno, a Talmudist rabbi from Cesena. His first work to stand out was the De verbo mirifico (1494): a dialogue between a Greek philosopher, a Qabbalist and a Christian. In order to assure the “initiatic” orthodoxy of the text, Reuchlin makes the Jewish rabbi the main character, thus placing both the Platonic philosophy and the Christian religion under the protection of the Qabbalistic magic. In fact, although effective, the Platonic and Neoplatonic magic did not provide sufficient spiritual guarantees due to the unclear standing of the pagan powers. The Qabbalah, on the other hand, based on the evocation in Hebrew of angels and of the names of Yehovah, assured the positive nature of the forces called into action. Therefore, Christians were able to find in it the proof of the divinity of Christ and the confirmation of the Christian revelation. As a matter of fact, with the addition of a shin in its centre, the tetragrammaton became Yehshuah, Jesus. However, the dialogue between the three sages eventually comes down to a mere description of a ceremonial magic to summon “angels”. In 1517, Reuchlin published his major work: De arte cabalistica. In this treatise he demonstrates a better knowledge of the Jewish Qabbalah, as evidenced by the numerous sources cited. This was probably due to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. On that occasion, many Qabbalists moved to Italy bringing their libraries with them. Also De arte cabalistica is structured around a dialogue between three wise men: a Qabbalist, a Pythagorean (de facto, an Hermeticist) and a Muslim. The Catholic is clearly no longer among the sages. The Pythagorean replaces the Platonist of his previous work, thus showing Reuchlin’s intent to have the Qabbalistic numerology coinciding with the Pythagorean one. There is no doubt that Reuchlin had influence on Martin Luther through his nephew Melanchthon, who was the closest collaborator of the Protestant reformer. However, this influence did not properly concern the intellectualist approach of the humanist to the Qabbalah. Luther was a rustic commoner, not very inclined to cultural abstractions. Nevertheless, he was also well aware that his desire to eliminate the Catholic priestly tradition led inevitably to a return to the Jewish origins of Christianity. Initially, in fact, Luther preached a reunification of the two Semitic religions, convinced as he was that, in this perspective, the Jews would have easily accepted Jesus as their Messiah. In fact, this also explains the renewed importance of the Old Testament for the Protestant reform which, in the long run, overshadowed the Gospel itself. However, within fifteen years, this Lutheran pro-Jewish feeling led to unexpected results. The Jews maintained their refusal to recognize the Christ as their Messiah and, more importantly, many of Luther’s followers began to get circumcised and to convert to Judaism. This prompted Luther, a man of uncontrollable outbursts of anger, to adopt increasingly severe positions against the Jewish, so much that in 1543 he published the book About the Jews and their lies (Von den Juden und ihren Lügen), which sparked a real anti-Semitic persecution.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 to a peasant family. The father, who became a miner, took advantage of the climate of social confusion typical of the time of communes and quickly managed to climb up to the lowest ranks of the new bourgeoisie. This allowed Martin to access Law studies, thus carrying on his father’s plan of social climbing. Nonetheless, Luther’s cultural education remained rather superficial. Because he was a follower of Ockham’s nominalism, he excelled in dialectics rather than in doctrine. Tormented by an inconstant nature, he fluctuated between visionary exaltations and dark depressions, fearful of God and tempted by the devil. And as a result of a sign from heaven, Luther became an Augustinian monk in search of a little cloistered peace. For a brief time, he was able to repress his lustful temperament and his intolerance for authority. However, he found the theme of divine justice, which he hated and feared, unbearable. He eventually found a solution to his annoyance: the divine justice implies that God justifies everyone indiscriminately. A sense of hatred for tradition began to arise in him. Tradition requires obedience and, hence, he was under the obligation to continuously repress the centrifugal forces of his own individualism. Thus, between 1517 and 1518 Luther began conceiving the idea of a “return” to early Christianity. Early Christianity could only be imagined by reading the Gospel; consequently, he rejected any transmission of ritual and doctrinal order. By amputating fifteen centuries of completely autonomous tradition, Luther placed his “true” Christianity back in the bosom of Judaism. This is the origin of the fictitious Judeo-Christianity that from that moment on has greatly gained ground up to today’s culture. At the same time, the Old Testament became predominant thanks to the “Protestant Bible”. Undoubtedly, Luther was not fully aware of this pro-Jewish turn, that was instead controlled by more sharp and dangerous minds, namely Reuchlin and his nephew Philip Melanchthon. The consequences of this “return to origins” were as follows:
1. Protestantism abolished any reading, prayer, invocation or praise instituted by the Church since its foundation, validating instead only passages taken from the Bible. Due to its hatred towards tradition, it fiercely opposed the Latin language in favour of the vernacular, in this case German.
2. The repealed traditional liturgical (ritual) and theological (doctrinal) teaching was replaced by the free examination of sacred texts. Since no authority was recognized, everyone had the right to interpret the texts at his own discretion, leaving no room for rebuttal or correction.
3. Actions (ritual or not) do not lead to salvation, only faith does. Faith is now seen as an emotional and mental transportation towards one’s individual beliefs, as it appears clear from point 4. Faith is a free gift of the divine grace; therefore, salvation is somehow predestined.
4. The arbitrary interpretation could become a sort of “spontaneous prayer”, and in the ceremonies it replaced the ancient consecrated formulas of the Catholic tradition. This allowed the use of free anathemas against anyone and anything that opposed Protestantism.
5. Thus, the rite was altogether replaced by the “liturgy of the word”, with readings of biblical passages in vernacular translation, by “spontaneous prayers” that became sentimental outbursts of anyone who belonged to the community, and by sappy songs that reinterpreted in a moralistic sense the Old Testament passages. The liturgy of the gesture was completely replaced by signs of community aggregation, “greetings of peace” etc.
6. The seven sacraments of Catholicism were first reduced to three, then to two. In fact, the confession without penance was soon abolished, favouring instead some sort of public admission of sin. Only the Baptism and the Eucharist survived. The Baptism with water became a symbol of aggregation to the community of believers. The Eucharist lost any sacrificial meaning: it was no longer the ritual repetition of the sacrifice of the cross, but simply the commemoration of the last supper. However, Luther kept claiming that the body and blood of Jesus Christ were still present in the bread and wine of the communion. But how was it possible to justify the presence of the Christ in the substances offered in sacrifice if there was no consecration? Could possibly the mere presence of laymen consecrate the bread and wine in any way?
7. The abolition of the sacrament of priestly ordination precluded all sort of consecration. Without priesthood there is no sacrificial rite nor the consecration of the oblation or the victim. The dissolution of priesthood was indeed the eradication from tradition, thus reducing the Protestant or Evangelical community, as they prefer to be called, to a lay community. One becomes “pastor” after a mere school course, or simply by election of the community, without obtaining any priestly charism.
8. Likewise, the place of prayer cannot be consecrated and it is no longer the permanent home of the Lord where His presence is real. It is open only during the congregation assemblies. For the rest of the time, it remains an unused profane space.
9. Similarly, the tombs of the saints and the relics are not held as holy. The very concept of sacred is just a conventional title given to the Bible, considered to be “the word of the Lord”. God, therefore, after the prophets of Judaism and after the historical life of Christ, became silent. Or rather, He speaks through the individual fantasies of each Protestant believer.
10. Due to the hatred and rejection towards any medieval tradition, the veneration of the saints and of the Virgin was also abolished. All iconic representations were, therefore, prohibited and the ancient images destroyed because they were seen as residues of superstition.
11. Due to the disappearance of the centrality of sacredness and mystery, and by pushing to the extreme limit the individualism, characteristic of that period of mercantile class affirmation, Protestantism inevitably fragmented into hundreds of sects and subsects fiercely in competition with each other: “And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand; And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand; And if Satan rise up against himself and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end.” (Gospel of Saint Mark, III. 24-26). Notwithstanding their feuding, these sects are always ready to overcome their differences and join forces in order to fight Tradition.
Maria Chiara de’ Fenzi