Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 5: The Protestant Reformation and the Copernican Revolution


The 16th century saw two revolutions simultaneously that were to change pretty much everything. One began when the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther responded to Johann Tetzel’s aggressive marketing of indulgences by nailing his “95 Theses” on a door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. The other began when Copernicus circulated his cosmological findings and ultimately published them just before his death in 1543, by which time everyone knew that he had proven that the earth is not the center of the universe, that it moves around the sun and that there could be limitless space and other worlds. The two events are closely connected because the Protestants held that only the word of God in The Bible was of supreme authority in all matters important to the life of man. This was of such great importance because for them it was the platform for denunciation of church decadence. Luther held that where science or church leaders disagreed with scripture, then institutions, laws, or even reason itself were in error. This resulted in the Protestants being quick to denounce Copernicus’ as yet unpublished findings as contrary to God’s word. However, it is not as simple as saying the Protestants were intolerant (though they often were) and the new scientists were for free thought (which they often said they were but didn’t act that way). Copernicus never meant to antagonize let alone reform the church, which is probably why he held off on publishing his findings. He was happy to address his sophisticated mathematical findings to a small, highly prepared and upper class audience and did not see value in democratizing the information. Additionally, it was the Protestants who, by both intention and accident, were responsible for fostering liberty through the elevation of individual conscience and promotion of literacy in the common tongues of people who were not 1%ers. The availability of The Bible and other best sellers in German and other languages lit fires under populism, nationalism and new interest in jurisprudence. The first use of the printing press to circulate Luther’s “95 Theses” essentially invented the free press as a check on concentrated power. Ironically, without the action of influential Lutherans, and even the spurious and misleading but fortuitous substitute preface contributed by Osiander, Copernicus’ book might not have been published or could have immediately been condemned rather than allowed to circulate.

Martin Luther was born in Saxony in 1483. He was the son of a prosperous businessman and town councilor in Mansfield, where Martin spent his childhood. Luther’s father had ambitions for Martin as a lawyer and sent him to the University in Erfurt with that in mind. Young Martin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in liberal arts and began studying law. Then, to his father’s chagrin, he quit and joined a strict monastic order in 1505 and began studying theology at the University. Luther obtained a Doctorate in Theology from Erfurt, switched monasteries to Wittenberg, became a professor of theology there and was a popular lecturer. He visited Rome on monastic business and was appalled at how little spirituality he found there. In 1517 Luther publicly objected to Johann Tetzel’s collection of indulgences which Luther claimed was blasphemous in that they promised salvation for a fee; and exploitative of common folk, who were in Luther’s view being conned out of their money. He drafted talking points for a public debate on the issue and sent them to Tetzel’s boss, the Archbishop of Mainz. These were Luther’s “95 Theses.” Perhaps the most important and provocative of these was #86, which read: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” Had the matter been handled collegially in an academic setting it might have ended differently, but Luther circulated his propositions among friends along with written comments and this document found its way into print making Luther a celebrity. Guttenberg’s press had been around for decades by this point but what was a recent phenomenon was the printing of broadsides for handing out in public. Content was king, and the printers were always looking for juicy bits then just as in Ben Franklin’s day. Luther’s scholarly though bumptious challenge to a common fund-raising practice by the church suddenly became news. The controversy incented Luther to build a new theology and create a mass audience for his ideas. The key issue for him was an old one that was engendered by Augustine’s nebulousness about free will. Luther decided that people are saved only by God’s grace and what they do or buy may be good for them and others but does not force God’s hand or affect the outcome for their souls in eternity. Luther and his followers would ever after claim that it is through faith alone apart from works that man is saved. Luther also taught that the church was a community of the faithful in which congregants could hire a learned man to lead and teach but for whom the church hierarchy, and by extension other earthly authorities, did not have spiritual significance. This idea had a radical effect on politics and civil law as well in all areas of learning and public discourse. Luther’s view was very different from those of Neo-Platonist humanists and scholastic theologians alike. Luther’s increasingly combative attitude both stirred up common folk and forced responses from the church leaders whose business and peace he was disrupting. No small part of this was that peasants were amazed that an upper middle class monk could be so critical of his supposedly infallible superiors. Additionally, the area civil ruler, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, weighed in on Luther’s behalf. Under Frederick’s protection he became a David against the corrupt Goliath in Rome in the popular imagination. Luther was excommunicated but he became an important chess piece to The Holy Roman Emperor and so the Roman Church couldn’t kill him but they did limit his ability to circulate by making him an outlaw. While under the protection of The Elector, Luther translated the New Testament into German and democratized scripture as the ultimate authority for men on earth and in heaven. Luther continued to write and developed a following which became a movement. He married and had a family, for which he was excoriated by former colleagues. He also had celebrated public debates to defend himself against the church but also to convince others of the rightness of his new theology. One of the most celebrated debates was with Erasmus of Rotterdam on the issue of free will and this went on for years with both sides claiming victory but no knockout scored. As Luther aged he became shrill and doctrinaire, making comments not only about how Copernicus’ theory was wrong, but also that Protestants who disagreed with him were damnable and Jews should be expelled from Germany and have their synagogues burned. Luther also famously abandoned the peasants who revolted with instigation by Thomas Muntzer, who acted largely based on what Luther said. Luther believed in God’s forgiveness, but was in the end intolerant and did not understand the social consequences of his actions. He died of natural causes in 1546.

Erasmus (b. 1466 d 1536) was a Christian humanist who was trained as a priest and remained a Roman Catholic all his life. His father was a priest and his parents were not legally married. Both parents died of plague when Erasmus was a teenager. Erasmus completed his education and was ordained a priest in 1492. He immediately saw a need to reform the priesthood but resolved that this should be done from within. Based on his talent as a scholar, Erasmus was given a special dispensation by the church to study with secular humanists while remaining a priest, which was an unusual privilege. He then travelled on the continent and in Britain and became friendly with leading figures such as King Henry VIII and Thomas More and spent some years as a Cambridge Don. Erasmus did celebrated Bible translations in Latin and Greek but none in any vernacular. Erasmus was well known among scholars but not the general public when Luther’s movement started to gain attention and he faced pressure to take sides in the issues raised by growing Protestant movement. He was reluctant to do this, believing in collegiality and tolerance and wanting to avoid participating in hurly burly. He wrote satire about clerical abuses but believed this was a way to effect change without causing the church great harm. At first, Erasmus respected Luther as a courageous reformer. Luther also admired Erasmus’ learning and wanted him to join his movement. Erasmus declined, wanting to retain his position as an academic with independent standing and connections to the emerging secular humanist influentials of Europe. Luther assumed Erasmus was a coward but Erasmus was legitimately concerned over the climate of violence that was growing around the movement and predicted that the authorities would ultimately react against them indiscriminately with force. He also said he didn’t see evidence that these moralizers behaved better than those whom they despised. In 1524 Erasmus wrote a book on free will in which he lampoons the Lutheran view while presenting both sides of the argument. Luther’s response was his book length treatment entitled On the Bondage of the Will. In it he attacked Erasmus both logically and personally. Luther claimed that Erasmus was not a Christian because he agreed with Origen, and others that humans had choice and this is part of what makes them human. Erasmus cited Augustine to support his own view, though Augustine’s vagueness had always been a big part of the problem. Luther and his Swiss counterpart John Calvin were among those who said humans have no choice. Calvin went so far as to say that a small number of elect had been predetermined ages upon ages ago and all the rest would burn in eternal fire no matter what they did or didn’t do. Luther, Calvin and many of their followers seemed unable to see the irony in their rigid dogmatism and readiness to condemn, combined with their lofty statements about the gospel of Jesus regarding unconditional love for all people and all creation. Erasmus was sad to see he had been right as the German Peasant’s War unfolded along with violence among the Anabaptists and other sects across the continent. For his part, having been a catalyst for the peasants to take up arms, Luther promptly sided with the nobles and even lauded their wholesale slaughter of men, women and children that ensued. Erasmus continued to focus on religious toleration, civility in public discourse and restraint in punishing error and he was respected for this by churchmen and secularists alike during the Age of Enlightenment.

Thomas S. Kuhn became well known in the 20th century for his ideas about “paradigm shift” espoused in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn also wrote a book entitled The Copernican Revolution. In this volume Kuhn refers to Luther’s ridiculing of Copernicus in 1539. In Kuhn’s view, Copernicus not only demonstrated that a picture of the universe was wrong, but that a mode of thought that included the entire drama of Christian life was destroyed. For him, the Neo-Platonist Christian humanist and Renaissance Magus views where cosmology either was an appearance or all was in motion and the earth was not at the center, never happened. Christianity must fail, along with the vision of Christian Neo-Platonist integrators like Origen, Boethius and secularist yet spiritual Renaissance Magi alike because Aristotle’s physics and Ptolemaic model didn’t fit the facts. While he mentions the poet Milton as a smart guy, he says Milton insisted, a century later, on sticking with the dead cosmological model in Paradise Lost (1667) though he doubtless knew better. Milton understood what great minds from Plato to Boethius and Giordano Bruno did – that the world is not as it appears and poetry is a different way of getting at deeper things. In this regard Kuhn was not only wrong but positively doltish by comparison. The Protestant Reformation and the critical, realistic, humanist spirit that gave rise to modern science jointly were to foster the evolution of liberty despite their own errors and excesses. One can decide for oneself whether this was providential or accidental. Other humanists of note like Montaigne and de la Boetie in the late 16th century wrote essays that remain as eloquent as anything ever written about the necessity of individual choice, the dangers of censorship and reliance on group-think or official justice to shape minds in a scripted way. Boetie said that the great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. “Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear, Boetie explains in The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.”[Rothbard] This would have been publicly not sayable, if not unthinkable, had it not been for the strange confluence of events that happened when information became more democratized than ever and people were encouraged, albeit by those who later betrayed them, to challenge authority, and to think and judge for themselves. Nothing could be more relevant for a developing ethics of information in the 21st century than to critically examine what happened during these years of foment and challenge of everything people thought they knew or knew for sure that just wasn’t so.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s