This article at Patheos this morning has drawn my attention to another article on Luther and the origins of liberalism by Korey D. Maas in the July/October 2019 edition of Concordia Theological Quarterly:
“What we have on the table, then, are three interpretive and evaluative options. Characterized with gross simplicity, they are as follows:
1. Luther was a proto-liberal, and that’s a good thing.
2. Luther was a proto-liberal, and that’s a bad thing.
3. Luther was not a proto-liberal, and that’s a bad thing.
If for no other reason than symmetry, though, a fourth option deserves to be in the mix, which is that Luther was not a proto-liberal, and that’s a good thing. So far as I am aware, however, no one is setting forth in any serious or sustained fashion the argument that (to revise Deneen) “liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Lutheranism,” and therefore we ought to be “wary of [its] basic premises.”40 Perhaps it is an argument that cannot convincingly be made. Or perhaps it can be, but we have so accommodated ourselves to liberal modernity that we would rather not entertain it too seriously. That it is not currently being made, however, means that there is at present no “Lutheran Showdown Worth Watching.” But I leave you with the suggestion that it is a showdown very much worth having.”
I agree it is a showdown very much worth having.
Martin Luther was not a proto-liberal. It is a Catholic myth that the Reformation inexorably led to liberalism. The Anabaptists were the most radical fringe group that came out of the Reformation. Today, Anabaptists are the most socially conservative religious group with the highest birthrate in the United States. The Amish population has exploded since the 1960s. In fact, the Amish are projected to overtake the current American population in 200 years.
It was the issue of indulgences that sparked the Reformation.
Martin Luther was a pious Augustinian monk who objected to the idea that the wealthy could purchase forgiveness for their sins. He was offended by the corruption of the Renaissance Papacy which was owned by the Medicis. It was Rome that was liberal. The effect of the Reformation in what is now Germany was to promote marriage and family and to do away with the monasteries and convents that promoted celibacy among the upper classes. Instead of going into the clergy and becoming celibate or keeping a concubine, intelligent people were encouraged to get married and have lots of children and to become literate in order to read the Bible.
Lutheranism made Northern Europe more literate and industrious than it had been under Catholicism. It did not lead to liberalism. Just the opposite is true. The result of the Reformation was the territorial state. Far from weakening the state, which is the object of liberalism, it strengthened the Lutheran monarchs and princes and led to absolutism in the region. Luther preached obedience to the state and brought it into the life of the church. Far from leading to religious tolerance, which is also an objective of liberalism, it led to religious homogeneity and the expulsion of non-conformist minorities who were labeled schwärmer or fanatics. Luther condemned all his enemies in the harshest terms whether it was Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Reformed, Antinomians or the Anabaptists. The Jews were expelled from Electoral Saxony in his lifetime and he literally died condemning the Jews in his last sermon in Eisleben.
The Reformation overlapped with the Age of Discovery, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. There were other important things going on in Western Europe in the the 16th century. The roots of liberalism can be traced back to the rediscovery and translation of classical texts in this period that revived naturalism, skepticism and materialism and the development of modern science and technology that discredited the cosmology of the Medieval world which was based on Aristotle and Ptolemy. It was making sense of these developments that inspired modern philosophy in the 17th century. The development of seafaring global commercial empires by England and the Netherlands led to population growth and made London and Amsterdam into the first large modern cities. Luther was an Augustinian. John Locke was a Pelagian. It wasn’t Luther that led to Locke. It was the empiricism that was the foundation of his philosophy.
The Republic of Letters which was the forerunner of the Enlightenment wasn’t Protestant or Catholic. It was a secular intelligentsia that developed long after Luther’s time when the first scientific institutions like the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences were being established in the late 17th century. Liberalism was essentially an attempt to create a new moral paradigm that was grounded on the new science. In total contrast to Luther and Augustine, it was based on an optimistic view of mankind that holds that man is born good and isn’t tainted with Original Sin and is only corrupted by society and that reason and the will is capable of discerning and acting on the good or that we are sanctified through our works or that our society is progressing and becoming morally better all the time.