Luther’s 500 years of influence

by Crispin Hull on October 11, 2017

FIVE hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther, placed (some say defiantly nailed) his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in what is now Germany, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation and changing the tide of human history.

The Reformation had more than religious implications. It had profound economic consequences and changed the way humans see themselves and their world, and not always for the better.

As is so often the case in human affairs, power, money and sex played crucial roles. Luther thought the clergy should marry and, indeed, later got married himself.

By Luther’s time the Catholic Church had become unsustainably corrupt, especially through the sale of indulgences whereby people could give money to the church in return for absolution (granted by clergy from the pope down) for sins. The bigger the sin, the richer the sinner the higher the price.

Sounds like modern politics: money buys indulgences irrespective of the general good.

As Luther asked in one of his theses: “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?”

Priests had much power over believers. It was they who interpreted the Bible which was only available in Latin. It was they who absolved sinners. They were the conduit to God.

The core beliefs of the 95 Theses were that, first, the Bible is the central religious authority, not the pope or other clergy and, secondly, that a person could only reach salvation by faith alone, and not by their deeds. In short, salvation was the gift of God. Salvation comes through the grace of god and cannot be bought.

Deeds, which then meant gifts to the church in money, kind or labour, did not count in the quest for salvation.

Luther’s ideas were dangerous for the church. They threatened papal power and authority and threatened the church’s income. But the ideas were appealing to ordinary people. Luther’s religious views were not entirely new, but his timing was good. Many rulers, especially in northern Europe, were happy to rid themselves of the payment of tithes to the church. And when they saw that the papacy’s retaliation with excommunication amounted to very little, others followed.

Catholic Spain, which ruled what is now the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and part of France, was not able to be the church’s policeman. It had squandered much of the riches it had plundered from the Americas. By the 1580s the Netherlands was essentially independent and began its own empire.

Spain was also too weak to bring England back to the Catholic fold after Henry VIII broke with the church by ending his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Catholic Portugal was also declining. So the military and economic power of Europe moved from the Catholic south to the Protestant north as the Catholic Church lost its political and economic sway over European states and no longer had any military agent to enforce its will.

A further consequence of Luther’s setting Protestantism ablaze was the laying down the conditions for the rise of capitalism.

Several scholars, notably Max Weber and R H Tawney, have pointed to the link. The ethic of the ostentatious, lavish, big-spending papacy and ruling families of Catholic Spain and Portugal did not lend itself to the building up of capital for investment.

On the other hand, the frugal Protestants with their ethic of simplicity, hard work and denial, built up capital without really trying. Moreover, their simple and often uniform tastes in clothing, housing and even food, neatly fitted with mass production, whereas those with opulent lifestyles often sought costly and unique items of clothing and housing.

The downside to Protestantism, however, has been the overemphasis on the Bible. Many Protestants still believe in the literal truth of the Bible, especially in the United States, where a lot of fundamentalist Protestants went to flee persecution in Europe. Five hundred years later it has in turn got in the way of evidence-based science, particularly evolution and climate change. Who needs evidence if you have got the Bible?

If everything is seen as God’s creation and God’s work and that salvation and an afterlife in Heaven are of paramount importance, what is the point of collective action to make the world a better place?

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THERE is another solution to the temporary electricity crisis that faces us in the next two summers until renewables change the game despite the Government’s best effort not to allow it. Rather than concentrate on supply, why don’t we look at the demand side as well, and introduce a system of electricity rationing, in a similar way to water restrictions and the petrol rationing during the 1970s oil crises.

Admittedly, it is easier to spot water gushing from garden irrigation systems or a car with an odd-number registration plate filling up on an even-number date than it would be to spot someone over-consuming electricity. But water and petrol restrictions were largely enforced through self-compliance rather than fines.

It could be the same with electricity.

People with odd street or unit numbers would be encouraged to turn off air-conditioning for an hour after 3pm, 5pm, 7pm and 9pm. People with even numbers would be encouraged to turn off for an hour at 2pm, 4pm, 6pm and 8pm.

People without solar would be encouraged not to use washing machines or dishwashers at peak times, such as between 7am and 9am and 5pm to 8pm.

I think we would be surprised at the level of compliance. The shame factor within families can be quite powerful, often contributing to better behaviour.

It’s worth a try, but no doubt political parties funded by profit-pursuing ulitility companies will see things differently and go for more supply and more consumption.
CRISPIN HULL
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 7 October 2017.

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