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5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding the German Reformation, 20 April 2014
This review is from: German Nation and Martin Luther (Hardcover)
A G Dickens was a superb historian who specialised in Reformation history in general and the German Reformation in particular. His books are a pleasure to read and provide insights often overlooked by others. From the outset he makes it clear that reference to movements of thought, politics and public opinion apparent on the eve of the Protestant Reformation betrays 'not merely a weak grasp of historical causation but also a singular lack of feeling for the power of tradition over the German mind'. He highlights the contributions of humanists and pamphleteers after 1500 but points out that they only provided 'new weapons for a very old campaign. They appealed to emotions grounded upon centuries of struggle, since German patriotic sentiments had from time immemorial been directed most often against popes and they had been clearly expressed by intellectuals, ecclesiastics and politicians...'. Many arose from 'anti-papal prejudices' created by conflicts between empire and papacy, mainly originating in the Investiture Contest of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

In 1305 the conflict between Philip IV of France and the openly corrupt Pope Boniface V111 over who had the right to tax the clergy in France led to the former being excommunicated and an attempt to arrest the latter. The papacy moved from Rome to Avignon resulting in the domination of the Catholic Church by the French and in 1378 the Great Schism. The development of the Conciliar movement openly questioned the pope's right to govern the Church absolutely and empowered the General Council to depose popes. At the heart of the movement was the principle that the pope could only rule by consent. Conservative German bishops argued the imperial oath to the pope was merely an assurance of support, not an admission of papal over-lordship. The Donation of Constantine which underlay the latter was regarded (and later proved to be) a forgery. Papal opposition to reform and fiscal moderation resulted in an increase in nationalism and anti-clericalism. There were predictions of the restoration of traditional German values through the appearance of a Messiah-King and a reorganisation of society in favour of the dispossessed. Luther was one expression of protest amongst many explained by Dickens.

Humanism in Germany followed a historical principle, building upon the past rather than upon the future. Prior to 1500 the main sources of the origins of the Germanic peoples were mythical stories supposedly demonstrating historical development based on imagination rather than fact. They were united in the claim that Germans were a nation 'resplendent in antiquity, valour and simple piety.', the natural successors to the displaced Roman empire. Humanists did not dismiss these stories but accepted them as true, emphasising the pan-German nature of humanism rather than the cosmopolitanism of Erasmus. They entered politics and administration in the various German states and became prominent in the distribution of vernacular tracts which introduced 'a more positively religious emphasis into the protest of the German nation'. Luther was indebted to Humanism inasmuch as he imbibed its opposition to the pretensions of the Catholic Church. When Tetzel was selling Indulgences it was to raise money for Albrecht's purchase of the see of Maiz from the pope. Thus Luther's Ninety-Five Theses were 'aimed not only at Indulgences but also against the sub-Christian outlook underlying the system'.

Whereas secular humanists studied ancient manuscripts and saw paganism and secularism Luther studied Greek and Hebrew to bring Christ's message to the masses. Erasmus persuaded the Elector Frederick of Saxony to protect Luther against papal sanctions. Luther's followers were all trained humanists and 'Luther's work as a translator of the Bible into German transcends all his achievements within the sphere of humanist scholarship'. In establishing the doctrine of Justification by Faith he denigrated Reason as a false guide to the nature and purposes of God but not as a God-given quality to be used in human relations. He believed in teaching the gospel in the vernacular and the value of education in spreading knowledge, including classical pagan and Christian writing but excluded canon law, scholastic theology and philosophy. Along with other German humanists he inherited and developed nationalism and imperialism. Indeed, he rarely thought about non-German problems.

As a theologian it was inevitable that Luther would be subject to theological influences. He favoured Scriptural evidence over ecclesiastical tradition but, while opposing the doctrine of transubstantiation, substituted one of the Real Presence which led to conflict with the Zwinglians who regarded the Eucharist as symbolic. Luther was acquainted with the mystical 'The Imitation of Christ' although he was repelled by monasticism. Other influences included William of Occam and Augustine advocating that God was unknowable by reason alone and 'did not will things because they were good but that things were good merely because God had willed them'. In Luther's eyes he had been chosen by God, not to start a new sect but to cleanse the Catholic Church of its false doctrines and misconduct. His message was spread by the advent of printing. At times he appeared to move from commonsense to injustice and between brutal invective and spiritual perceptions. Yet in his polemical writing he was consistent if stubborn whereas others often preached without a devout spirit. He was a populariser of his message on a voluminous scale, completely out-scoring supporters of the Catholic Church.

Dickens provides an overview of the changing historiography of the German Reformation. The Lutherans made few notable contributions to their own history during the sixteenth century and those which appeared were inevitably biased. They included 'pious moralists, soulful theologians and even innocent psychiatrists, all consciously or unconsciously tending to turn the German Reformation into a one-man story'. Subsequent histories reflected the age in which they were written. Hume, Voltaire and Gibbon welcomed the Reformation as a precursor to the Enlightenment. Catholic historians blamed the Reformation for a decline in German morality and religion. Dickens concludes Luther was elevated to his historic role by a surge of forces within Germany not personality alone. Five stars.
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