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“The Reformation Era and the Language of Social Change,” Concept 2000, First San Jose Lecture

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The Reformation Era and the Language of Social Change

Christ the Good Shepherd Church

San Jose, California

Monday, November 3, 1997 at 7:00pm

We are nearing the millennial year 2000, and historically, some kind of “end of the world” fervor has always accompanied such calendar changes. In our time, will it be some right-wing Christian fundamentalism which comes into power and uses the organs of the state to impose its particular brand of morality upon everyone, or can there be a different revolution, a revolution of hearts and minds,[1] one that brings about responsible social change, with greater approximations of social justice?[2] That means we have to learn to speak the truth to power and have to challenge the economic and political powers that prevail today to be law abiding – or actually make laws that have the common good at heart and not only private interests. Note how subtle a ploy the issue of family values can be if it is intended to divert us from unjust corporate, or other social, economic, and political structures we live in.

Looking back into history, the year 1500 had this kind of fervor, and that makes taking a look at it somewhat instructive for ourselves. But just relating the story of the Reformation again may not be too helpful. I want to look at it from a social-linguistic point of view. What do I mean by that? I want to look at the relationship of language and social change. And we will have to distinguish what kind of language has the power to bring about social change, and what kind of social change we desire. Things can change for the better or for the worse.

Although my point of view is controversial, both from a social and from a linguistic perspective, I am convinced that language plays a strong role in social change. Not much study of language philosophy and sociology is required to be able to discern such language. A statement by Luther to addressing Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will stands out:

For the Word of God comes, whenever it comes to change and renew the world.[3]

Now that has always sounded to me like Karl Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach:

The philosophers have merely interpreted the world in different ways: the point, however, is to change it.[4]

This language of command may be one sense of what Luther called “Word and Command.” It is like his language of address confronting society. It is related to what some philosophers call, “performative language.” I like to call it the executive use of language or the executive mode of speech.

The word, “performative,” comes from a new understanding of language as speech-act theory. In the performative mode, language does not only try to reflect realities of the world truly or falsely, but the language is doing something successfully or unsuccessfully. In one case the world has the power over the language; in the other, the language has power over the world, to bend the world into the shape it defines. The words grasp and mold us into their idea, rather than our merely expressing ideas with them. These kinds of words can destroy us and hurt us, or they can sustain us and give us new life. This mode of language is called the Theology of the Word of God in Lutheran parlance.

Now this linguistic approach is controversial, and some social and political historians disagree vehemently with it,[5] because it undermines a somewhat Marxist materialistic position – which focuses on class conflict. If Luther and the Reformation, not counting some Anabaptists and radicals, like Thomas Müntzer, took a stand against the Peasants’ War, which after all, represented the uprising of the common man, then how can the Reformation be said to bring social change for them? Or can I be trivializing social change as that for the higher estates? I believe a failure of the Reformation is represented in the debacle of the Peasants’ War, but that change took place all the same, change which appears reactionary from our standpoint in history – although we have also not yet solved this historical problem even today – but which certainly represented movement out of the late medieval world onto the threshold of the modern one.

But surprisingly, I believe there is a commonality between Lutheranism and Marxism.  Marxism brought about an incredible social movement over the last 150 years, or even the last 50 years. Although it is collapsing today, the movement and its spread has been truly phenomenal. But Luther’s movement too, spread like “wildfire” in the same way almost 500 years ago. His was a religious movement that fought clericalism. Marxism was a secular anti-religious movement that fought capitalism unsuccessfully. But Marxism was a quasi-religion. In other words, it also had some of the trappings of a secular religion. A Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev called it the second Islam.

Here is something not many people know: between Luther and Marx we have the philosopher Hegel. Hegel systematized Luther’s dialectical theology into a universal, all-encompassing philosophy. Then Marx turned Hegel’s idealistic philosophy on its head, and worked out a dialectical materialism, which seems to have lost all the social benefits it promised, because something in its heart remained deceptive.[6]

Now my controversial thesis follows: in the places where the Reformation took hold, and in part, even in countries that remained Catholic, the Reformation initiated a great deal of social change. It even began a successful systemic change from late medieval clericalism to an early modern form of secularism.

Note that the terms, “secularism” and “clericalism,” are notorious for having many different meanings. By clericalism, I mean taking and holding ecclesiastical positions for the sake of power and possessions. Clericalism entails religious “usage” for exploitation.  And the form of secularism posited here, is not one that is  anti- or irreligious, like the modern kind.[7] I mean a very early kind of secularism in which lay people try to own their Christian faith and take it to heart in a new way; begin participating in religious matters directly. They no longer allowed the priests to have such a great portion if the mediation between themselves and God. The common people were beginning to take their first steps on the long road to their coming of age, their maturity.

Here the printing press really helped. Instead of only rich scholars being able to own books, suddenly common people could afford to buy and read them, or have them read aloud, if they were illiterate. Peasants would memorize pamphlets by a best selling author named Martin Luther, by singing them – and then reciting them for their friends and neighbors to hear. This prolific monk wrote one book after another. The authors for most books died long ago. But this was a living author, who did not write about stale issues, but about the burning issues of the day.[8] After he had been kidnaped, it turned out for his own protection by Frederick the Wise, – everyone thought he had been killed – he translated the New Testament from Erasmus’ new Greek edition, constructed from the best manuscripts. That September Testament, as it was called, came out in 1522, and its revision, the December Testament, came out three months later. They were real hits. Sold out before they could hit the shelves. The common people were reading them everywhere, and the priests were busy trying to stop them. The common people were shocked by what they really found in the Bible compared with what the priests had said was in it.

That is when burghers and students started to revolt. First the knights revolted in 1523, and of course, the great Peasants’ War took place in 1525, the event I’ve been studying.   Erasmus told Luther:  It’s not right that you give all this information to the common people.  It will only lead to “tumult.”  They said that word because the word “revolution” did not get coined until about 150 years later.  Oddly enough, a recent study argues that “reformation” meant what we mean by “revolution” today.[9] In any case, this is where Luther responds to Erasmus:  “For the Word of God comes, whenever it comes, to change and renew the world.”  Erasmus was an illegitimate child of a priest, like so many others. Sometimes as many as a thousand priests in a bishopric had concubines for whom they could purchase dispensation from their bishop – for a goodly price! Erasmus never spoke a word of Dutch or German.  He only spoke Latin.  He is supposed to have slipped back into German in the last word he gasped when he died:  “God.”[10] But the language of the mass was Latin, that of the scholars was Latin.  Common people only understood the vernacular. You had to become part of an elite to learn Latin in order to find out what was going on – in the church, in the courts, the royal ones, as well as the courts of law – at the time, there were secular courts of law competing with ecclesiastical courts of canon law – but no matter, what was significant was said in Latin.  (You still find that scholars keep the spicy parts in Latin to keep you in the dark about significant or embarrassing facts.)

Luther was different.  He wanted the common people to be able to understand. To give an example: even today – you often see El Shaddai in the Old Testament, but it’s explanation usually remains hidden.  Not Luther.  He wrote plainly that it refers to God as the many breasted goddess.[11] Luther does not mind being controversial.

But look at the social change involved in placing some of the most vulnerable religious issues and some of the most difficult struggles to ascertain the truth into the hands of the common people, who had not only been barred from it by their social class or estate, but also by an elite language, one spoken only by the elites, i.e., Latin.

Earlier bishops had condemned writing about theology and religious topics in the vernacular, in German, in this case, because the language had not developed sufficiently to be able to express the issues accurately. Only Latin was capable of such expression, according to the Archbishop of Mainz, Bertold v. Henneberg in 1484.[12] Luther, had nothing if he did not have a command of the language.   (He also had a command of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He is one of the few great theologians of the church who had a command of Hebrew.  Augustine knew only Latin – he didn’t even know Greek.)  But Luther’s experience of justification by faith, or better, justification by grace through faith, took place in his dogged perserverance to interpret a passage from scriptures – and what he experienced was a language event, and that experience gives you a new command of the language. E.g.  The Isaiah passage:  Blessed are the feet of those who bear the glad tidings.[13] Luther say:  Those aren’t his feet.  Those are the feet of the meters of sentence, – it means for example:  Blessed are the cadences – blessed is the poetry of those who come bearing the Good News.[14]

Thus after Luther started writing in German, it was no longer the same language.  And he remained a translator of the scripture his whole life through.  The Old Testament finally came out in 1534. He kept a whole team of people searching for the right words.[15] He tells Spalatin: Go see how they speak in the market place.  How do the common people say that?  That’s how it has to be put in the Scripture.  They say the Reformation was a language event – and Luther’s translation of the Bible was also a language event. All seventeen of the earlier translations were left behind.  No translation – matched Luther’s.  Even Catholic anti-Luther Bibles really used his translation – and condemned him rather then giving him the credit for it, about which he complained.[16]

Now to touch upon the clericalism of the time in an altogether too abbreviated a way: The clergy were an estate. Gathering social data is difficult. But perhaps they make up from 8 to 14 percent of the population; we can even include the majority of the students, because they belonged to it, even many non-students who longed for benefices and would never receive them. A whole estate were clergy – bishops monks nuns, prelates, canons (they elected the bishops and were organized in cathedral chapters), cardinals, (who sometimes traveled with a retinue of 160 – 170 horsemen!), legates,  mendicant friars, beguines, etc., etc.  Then it is necessary to consider the large percentage of the total property that the church owned and controlled.  A benefice system brought the tithes of rich monastic holdings and parishes to ecclesiasts.[17] A nobleman might give his son a monastery and all its income as a benefice.  They fought over the real profitable plums.  For a slight charge the pope would reserve them for someone else before the holder of the benefice had even died.[18] The papacy had a lucrative income on expectancies of benefices as well.

A social fact I am not taking into account is the inheritance issue involved in the celibacy of the clergy, which counteracted the powerful drive of passing property on to one’s family. Even if priests took concubines, their progeny were cut off from inheritance. That way the church could always newly administer and redistribute church property. Thus kings also loved investing bishops into their fiefdoms in earlier days, because they never had to worry about a son wanting to inherit the position. The king could always reassign a new bishop of his choosing.[19]

Clericalism could also entail the ontological superiority that the priests felt they had over lay people.[20] Luther maintained the priesthood of all believers and that the priests had only a different functional role, but clergy and lay alike received the same holy calling, had the same holy orders, the source of which was their baptism.[21]

The priest could change the bread and the wine into the real body and blood of Christ. No slight shift of emphasis is involved in changing the terms to “Word and Sacrament” from “Church and Sacrament” or “Priesthood and Sacrament.” The priest had the authority to excommunicate you with a small or a large ban – no laughing matter in those days.  No one could have anything to do with you. You could only leave and start life over where they did not know you. The church could go further and try you as a heretic after, if you had the misfortune to be accused by the inquisition. The church could torture you and burn you at the stake, or let you die in a dungeon under suspicious circumstances, as happened in England.[22]

If you had the small ban, a large fine and reconciliation with the priest was required. You had to go to mass, you had to go to confession, no matter how much control the priest received over you by means of it. To Lucien Febvre the church dominated  every aspect of the people lives.[23]

The priests mediated religion between God and the people.  Luther displaced them. It was not the “church and sacrament,” nor the “priest and sacrament,” anymore, but now the “word and sacrament.”  The church did not control the Word, although it proclaimed it – if it took religion and faith seriously. Many bishops were much too busy with power politics and the accumulation of possessions.  Luther taught that they did not represent the church. “The church is where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered.”[24] The church itself is the creation of the Word of God.  Now in the sacrament, the Word of God is the basic necessity, not the priest.  Anyway, because the priest interfered with every aspect of peoples lives through the seven sacraments, Luther reduced them to 3 – leaving in confession.  Then he reduced these to two – only baptism and  communion. (If that was not his intention, it certainly was the effect.)

If we want to continue describing clericalism, then imagine if our governor of California was really an Archbishop, or even a Cardinal, because California is such an important state,  and answerable to the pope.  Theoretically, he could be elected by a Cathedral Chapter of Canon lawyers or be appointed by the pope. California would have been comparable to the Archbishopric of Mainz, where the ecclesiastical prince was also an elector of the emperor, and that office being so important, the pope would probably reserve this appointment for himself.  Every time a new Bishop – governor was elected, the Pope would ask for about twenty million dollars, even if the last office had not yet even been paid for.[25] That would require a new indulgence campaign designate to bring fifty million into he ecclesiastical coffers.      The pope wore a tiara – a triple crown.  One crown represented his being the king or mayor of the city of Rome, the second represented his being the territorial monarch of a large principality in Italy, and the last represented his being the universal pope.  That in Latin was called, the pontifex maximus, which was the title of Caesar – so he sometimes also thought he was the emperor, and he had the fraudulent Donation of Constantine to prove it.  Thus because he was a territorial king, he played politics with the king of France against the Emperor Charles V.  In this way the emperor’s spiritual leader and pastor, kept making alliances with his deadliest enemy, steeping the empire into one war after another.

It was that kind of clericalization which had to be reformed in head and members – and a long history of frustrated attempts to reform the state of affairs of the church preceded the success of Luther’s movement.

In very important ways, Luther took the matters of faith out of the hands of the priests, and said that by the Word of God, people were justified by grace through faith, and not by all the works that the church of the day required. They could extricate themselves from the whole treasury of merits, the cult of the saints, the whole penitential system, and the sacrifice of the mass (considered as the offering of the priests to the people, rather than God’s offering to the people, God’s work and service for the people).  Faith gave the laity direct access to God. The hierarchy no longer defined the church, but the communion, the community the people, who shared in and around the Word and Sacrament, did.  The people of God defined the church not the hierarchy.

It is difficult to see how a historian can claim that the Reformation did not represent social change!  Luther tried to strip the church of it’s pretensions to power and wealth by his two kingdom theory. He taught that ministers could marry, and he himself married a runaway nun. That certainly scandalized the old guard of the day.  The monasteries lay alongside the real inner-worldly calling of all baptized Christians.  Therefore imagine the social change resulting from the dissolution of all the monasteries in England!  In Protestant Germany they became schools, orphanages, hospitals, or a community chest for helping the poor, giving scholarships to bright young students without means and dowries to young women from poor homes.  The Language in the churches slowly changed from Latin to German, i.e., the vernacular, and that over 450 years before Vatican II.  Slowly over the centuries, the vernacular languages began to replace Latin as Language of scholarship. But the vernacular languages flared up like Roman Candles, with a brightness in the Reformation anticipating the future displacement of Latin.

Next time I will go into some of the teachings of Luther’s. For justification by faith I will explain how it relates to our economic and social experience today.  Are CEO’s a new version of medieval lords like bishops and other benefice holders of the nobility, and does the teaching about justification by grace through faith relate to our situation?  You’ll see that it does.  In my third session, I would like to show that performative language and speech act theory helps us understand how Luther’s concept of the Gospel became so dynamic.  The promise is one of the basic performative speech acts – and Luther discovers that the Gospel is really in the  Old Testament, too, in the form of the promises of God – the promises that God makes to us for our lives.

In the last session – we will be speaking about what a revolution of hearts and minds might look like today – a socially responsible revolution. It will have much to do with language and the faith that comes by hearing it, and the way we are addressed in the speaking of it.

Dr. Peter Krey


[1]The concept of “a revolution of hearts and minds” comes from Helen Caldicott, “Technology, Spirituality, and the Future of the Planet” a speech given in Portland, OR 3/28/95 and heard on Alternative Radio, David Barsamian, Boulder Colorado, 1995.

[2]The concept of “approximations of justice” comes from Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. II, (New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1964), p. 193.

[3]Helmut T. Lehman, ed., Luther Works, Vol. 33, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972),p. 52.

[4]Karl Marx, Selected Works, (German) Ausgewaelte Werke, Erster band, (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1974), p. 200.

[5]I am hesitant and anxious about proposing it as my dissertation thesis.

[6]A joke: If Marx had said, “Workers of the world, in God’s name unite!” then he may have been successful. He thought you had to be an atheist to be scientific. But atheism distorts science, and such a requirement is now recognized to be patently false.

[7]William Lazareth, A Theology of Politics, (New York: Lutheran Church in America: Board of Social Ministry, 1965), 12.

[8]Bernd Moeller, “The Reception of Luther in the Early Reformation,” A Lecture for the International Congress of Luther Research, Oslo, August 14-20, 1988. Helmar Junghans, ed., Luther Year Book, No 57:1990, p. 61-62.

[9]Maximilian Lorenz Baeumer, Die Reformation als Revolution und Aufruhr, (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1991).

[10]From a Thomas A. Brady, Jr. lecture.

[11]It certainly means the Omnipotent, the Pantocrator, but Luther openly derives this name of God from the Hebrew “Shad” for “breast.” Luther writes, “In this passage [Genesis 48:3], however, it has only one meaning, as though you were to speak of God as ‘the Nourisher,’ as the Greeks called Diana, ρολύμαστος (polymastos), ‘many-breasted,’ because she was the nurse of Asia and the whole world – the nurse who supplied nourishment for all living beings. And the name fits God alone; for He alone is the Nourisher, Sustainer, and Preserver of everything He has created. We have translated it with ‘God Almighty'” (LW 8, page 152 and WA XLIV:689-690).

[12]Peter von Polenz, Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart,v. I, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), p. 277.

[13]Isaiah 52:7. In Luther: Lecture to the Romans, edited by Wilhelm Pauck, (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1961), p. 300, Luther is really working with the “feet” of several other verses here but the “glad tidings” of the Isaiah passage definitely also fits his description. Luther is being very primitive: words must have feet for their sound to go fourth, and for them to trample people under, and but also very advanced ostensibly conceiving even linguistic acts: “This can be done only by the word.”

[14]I am taking the liberty to interpret Luther here. He says, “The spoken word runs and therefore has feet, and they are the diction and sounds of the words.” Ibid.

[15]Not to mention the many printing presses he kept humming and printers working.

[16]Peter von Polenz, p. 252 and 278.

[17]Gerald Strauss notes that it was “not unknown for a cardinal to hold three metropolitan and cathedral churches in commendam (enjoyment of the income from a benefice by someone who cannot or does not discharge the duties connected with it), and have ten abbeys, six priories and archdeaconates, and four parish churches as well.”  Manifestations, p. 51.

[18]Gerald Strauss, p.50.

[19]Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300, (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1988), p. 25.

[20]George Herbert Mead has an interesting discussion of caste, or in medieval terms: peasants, princes, or priests, separate estates versus functionalizing differences which would prevent “segmenting” society into such estates – “segmenting” is a term from Durkheim, with which Mead is probably familiar. See On Social Psychology, edited by Anselm Strauss, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 273. Lutherans also speak of the functionality of the distinction between the laity and pastor as opposed to the ontological, indelible mark of the priest.

[21]Perhaps one could argue that industrialization is the secular internalization of monasticism. Weber’s immanent monasticism, or inner-worldly asceticism, may thus have found an outlet in England after the vacuum left by the dissolution of all the monasteries. Very problematic, historically, for this argument is that the Henrician dissolution took place between 1535-1540 and the Industrial Revolution, over two centuries later (1760-1780). From a sociological sense of time, which lies between that of biological evolution and historical development, it is a reasonable thesis. The connection is worth exploring.     Interestingly, Heinz Schilling cites Thomas Nipperdey’s concept of “interiorized transcendence” of work, family, nation, and revolution; and Schilling himself speaks of the “religious charging of the political and social realm,” by which he may well include the religious charging of the economic realm. In the same place he cites Gerhard Dilcher concerning “a kind of translation of ecclesiastical institutions and values into the non-ecclesiastical world.” Factory systems, needing colonial intake of raw materials and markets for international distribution of products, may well have been a secular resurrection of international monastic chains, but now ordered by economic doctrines. Heinz Schilling, “The Confessionalization of Church, State, and Society,” from Reinhard and Schilling, Die Katholische Konfessionalisierung, (Guetersloh und Muenster, 1995), in the last three pages. Brady Reader, Confessionalization in Europe ,

1550-1700, p. 34-35.

[22]I refer to the Hunne Affair which scandalized England. A.G. Dickens, The English Reformation, Second Edition, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), p.114.

[23]Lucien Febvre, The Religion of Rabelais: the Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 325ff.

[24]Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, Book of Concord, p. 32. Freely cited.

[25]G. Strauss, p.45-46: Jacob Wimpheling refers to these exorbitant fees. Total fees for the Archbishopric of Mainz came to about 20,000 gulden, and had to be paid again before a previous fee had been completely paid for.

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Written by peterkrey

December 4, 2009 at 5:47 am

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