Martin Luther: Medieval or Modern?

When examining the primary documents of Martin Luther it is evident that he was more a medieval figure than a modern one. His writings and actions greatly influenced the Protestant Reformation and Luther stood as a figurehead to all involved with the movement. Though indicative of a man with influential and revolutionary knowledge, Luther’s ethics were based upon a Thomistic “medieval” interpretation. With examination and synthesis of three of Luther’s text, his medieval ethical interpretation can be seen.
Martin Luther’s primary text for examining the freedom of believers was Concerning Christian Liberty. In this brief treatise Luther addresses the fundamental aspects of Human/God’s Righteousness and acts as a template for Christian obedience. The entire texts rest upon two contradictory pillars: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Though these two statements rest in cognitive dissonance they are to be understood via Luther’s two-fold nature of Humanity. Man has a bodily nature and a spiritual nature and both can exist simultaneously. This implies that one is both righteous and simultaneously a sinner in that one is “in marriage with Christ.” With baptism one receives regeneration allowing for one’s sinful nature to be destroyed; the only action that can undo the cleansing of baptism is unbelief in God. It is by having faith in God (not the doing of good works) that enlists salvation within one’s soul. Luther uses this particular text to establish the importance of doing one’s duty towards their neighbor over other aspects of life. Following along with medieval thematic elements Luther advocates faith in the body of believers.
On Temporal Authority is Luther’s attempt to distinguish the role of the believer with regards to the state. Going against the “modern” aspects of John Calvin’s theology of the believers taking an active role in the government/justice system, Luther advocates for a separation of the “sword” from the “righteous.” Luther quotes Matt. 5:39-40 in that Christians (as Christ commanded) are to turn the other cheek and to not resist evildoers. Luther claims that the state is responsible for raising the sword against injustice. This quasi-dualistic society leads Luther to establish his “two-kingdom” doctrine: the earthly kingdom and the spiritual kingdom. Luther writes:
“…God has ordained two governments; the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal (earthly), which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that—no thanks to them—they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.”
This dualistic view of humanity greatly resembles Thomas Aquinas’ two-fold nature of the world. The Supernatural, which entails achieving happiness through God and the Natural, which allows for happiness through life. Luther’s two-kingdom model follows along with Aquinas dualistic model.
Another text of Luther’s that demonstrates his medieval characteristics is his work Against the Robbing and Murdering of Peasants. In the text Luther boldly states that the injustices being performed by the peasant revolts clearly put them outside of the realm of Christianity. Not only did they attack and pillage monasteries (“deserving death in body and soul as highwaymen and murderers”), but also they have directly gone against Paul’s command in Rom. 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Luther goes on to state that baptism makes a man free in soul NOT mind and body. A ruler (if not a Christian) should be able to “smite and punish” the peasants who so disobey his commands because they have already ignored the commands of the Gospel and the ruler. But if the ruler is a Christian he ought to give the peasants an opportunity to come to terms (“even though they are not worthy of it”) and if that fails “swiftly take up the sword.” Calvin would later argue for the implementation of Christian leadership within society and banishment for all those not following the words of God, going against Luther’s belief of giving one a “second chance.”
Martin Luther’s overwhelming influence on Christian history is staggering. His new ideas challenged the authority of the papacy in Rome, and confirmed possible salvation within all who have Faith. His radical ideas were new and contemporary at the time, but they were greatly influenced by medieval theology specifically that of Thomas Aquinas. Thus it seems that as avant-garde as Luther was, he was more a medieval figure than a modern one.

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