Ethan Shagan on The Birth of Modern Belief

ShaganThis landmark book traces the history of belief in the Christian West from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, revealing for the first time how a distinctively modern category of belief came into being. Ethan Shagan focuses not on what people believed, which is the normal concern of Reformation history, but on the more fundamental question of what people took belief to be. Brilliantly illuminating, The Birth of Modern Belief demonstrates how belief came to occupy such an ambivalent place in the modern world, becoming the essential category by which we express our judgments about science, society, and the sacred, but at the expense of the unique status religion once enjoyed.

What led you to write this book?

Good works of history often begin with a chance discovery that sticks like a splinter in the historian’s mind: something weird or surprising in the historical record that demands an explanation. In this case, that oddity was something I found in Martin Luther’s collected writings: his claim that most people do not believe that God exists. This struck me as utterly outlandish. Besides the fact that more or less everyone in sixteenth-century Europe believed in God, Luther also wrote elsewhere that atheism was virtually impossible because knowledge of God is imprinted on all human souls. So what on earth was going on? Upon further research, I found other versions of this same bizarre claim popping up elsewhere in the sixteenth century. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that anyone who follows their own passions in defiance of heavenly judgment “denies that there is a God”—the translator of the modern English edition changed this passage to “virtually denies that there is a God,” presumably because he thought the original must have been some sort of mistake. The radical spiritualist Sebastian Franck claimed, far more drastically, that “there is not a single believer on earth!” These remarkable and unexpected ideas were not written in obscure places, nor were they written by unknown people. So why had no historian ever written about them before?

These discoveries set me on a journey that has lasted seven years. I started with the intuition that “belief” itself had changed its meaning over time. Thus, for instance, Luther could say that everyone knows God exists, but he could still argue that most people do not believe God exists, because he took “belief” to be a more difficult condition. But from there I had to figure out what preexisting, medieval understandings of belief Luther was rejecting. Then I had to figure out how the different factions in the Reformation interpreted belief. And then, most importantly, I set myself the task of figuring out how a modern understanding of “belief” emerged. Hence this became a book about the birth of modern belief: a whole new way of imagining the relationship between religion and other kinds of knowledge, which we take to be absolutely timeless and natural but was in fact an invention of the seventeenth century and a touchstone of the Enlightenment. 

Can you explain a bit about the book’s argument? What do you mean by a modern category of belief?

Belief has a history; the concept changes over time. We take it for granted that “belief” means private judgment or opinion. From that assumption, which we assume is timeless but is in fact profoundly modern, lots of other conclusions follow which seem equally unquestionable. For example, if belief is private judgment, then our beliefs might change over time in light of new evidence or further reflection. Likewise, if belief is opinion, then our belief on any particular issue might be probable rather than absolute: we might reasonably say we believe something if we think it’s likely, even if we’re uncertain. Most importantly, if belief is private judgment, then I might believe a religious doctrine in more or less the same sense that I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or that our sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy.

None of this would have been taken for granted in the Western tradition before the seventeenth century, and indeed a great deal of intellectual energy was poured into denying that any of it was true. Of course, people sometimes used the verb “believe” (credo in Latin, glauben in German, etc.) in a colloquial way—“I believe this peach is ripe,” or “I believe my husband loves me”—but a vast range of theology and philosophy was devoted to the proposition that this was totally different from belief in its proper, religious sense. To believe required an absolute, certain conviction, guaranteed to be true by reliable authority. Anything lesser or different could easily be denounced as unbelief, a failure of the mind and soul; anyone who believed wrongly, or insufficiently, or for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way, might be taken not to believe at all. So my book is a history of how belief was freed from these constraints, creating the conditions in which religion could flourish in a secular age, but only at the cost of relinquishing the special status religion had previously enjoyed.

It seems intuitive that modern belief formed as a reaction against the Church, but how was it also a reaction against Luther and Calvinism?

Lots of people think that the Reformation produced religious liberty, because in the Reformation individuals—like Luther purportedly saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other”—insisted upon their own conscientious right to believe differently from the Roman Catholic Church. But this is quite wrong. Luther and his allies did indeed insist that their own beliefs were genuine, and that their own consciences were inviolable. But in the very act of making this claim for themselves, they insisted that all other beliefs were not simply false, they were not even beliefs at all. When early modern Protestants claimed the right to believe as they would, they were creating a new and exclusive category of belief to which others did not have access. So the Reformation did not inaugurate modern belief. Instead it produced a new kind of authoritarianism: whereas Catholics disciplined people to believe, Protestants accepted that belief was rare, and instead disciplined unbelievers. The reaction against these twin pillars of orthodoxy thus came from dissidents within both traditions. Modern belief emerged in fits and starts, not as a revolution against Christianity, but as a revolution from within Christianity by mutineers whose strained relationship to orthodoxy necessitated a more porous understand of belief.

How does the modern idea of belief travel through later intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment? Did it undergo changes there as well?

This is really a book about the Enlightenment, as much or more than it’s a book about the Reformation, because it was in the Enlightenment that modern belief truly emerged as a powerful force in the world. But the Enlightenment you’ll find in these pages may not be the one you expect.

First, it is an Enlightenment that is inclusive of religion rather than against religion. I do not deny, of course, that there was a “radical Enlightenment” which attempted, often quite explicitly, to undermine the claims of organized Christianity. But by far the more significant project of the Enlightenment was to reestablish religion on a new basis, to render it not only compatible with reason but a partner in the task of criticism which was at the heart of eighteenth-century ideas. The Enlightenment thus pioneered a question which we take for granted today, but which had received remarkably little attention previously: on what grounds should I believe? There were many different answers in the Enlightenment—as there remain today—but the task of Enlightenment religion was to tear down the medieval architecture of the mind which had strictly separated belief, knowledge, and opinion, and had thus made the question itself virtually meaningless. Enlightenment Christianity established what the Reformation had not: the sovereignty of the believing subject.

Second, my Enlightenment is not about the triumph of reason, but rather the triumph of opinion. Modern critics of the Enlightenment, on both the Left and the Right, often denigrate Enlightenment reason—and not without reason, if you’ll pardon the pun—as a false universal which allowed a new orthodoxy to establish itself as the natural frame of all argument rather than a peculiar argument in its own right. But this understanding of the Enlightenment, which takes Immanuel Kant as its avatar, misses huge swathes of late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century thought which instead privileged opinion, a kind of judgment that was particular rather than universal. In this book, I want to resuscitate an Enlightenment that privileged autonomous judgment rather than judgment constrained by someone else’s reason, and thus led to new kinds of spiritualism as much as it led to new kinds of scientism. At its worst, this modern spirit of autonomy produces the world of “alternative facts” and “fake news;” but at its best, it produces the conditions of freedom that allow for peace in a diverse society.

What is the relationship between the history of belief and secularization?

Every page of this book is engaged at least obliquely with the secularization question, but one of my key points is that secularization is the wrong question.

Secularization assumes that the crucial development in modernity is the creation of spaces outside or apart from religion; in modernity, this argument goes, religion has been relegated to a separate, private sphere. But by contrast, what I find is that modernity’s encounter with religion is not about segregating belief from the world, but rather about the promiscuous opening of belief to the world. Belief becomes, in modernity, not the boundary separating religious claims from other kinds of knowledge, but rather the least common denominator of all knowledge. Here my favorite example is the claim of many modern Christians that scientific knowledge—like the theory of evolution, for instance—is just another form of belief. This claim would have been literally nonsensical before the seventeenth century, because the whole point of belief was to preserve a special prestige for Christianity: science was a different beast altogether, belonging to different mental faculties and defended in different ways. The fact that scientific theories can now be understood as beliefs suggests that instead of thinking about the rise of a modern secular, we instead need to think about what happened when the walls separating religious belief from other kinds of knowledge-claims were breached.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

That belief has proliferated rather than waned in modernity, but only because the definition of belief has changed in our society to make it compatible with diversity, democracy, and freedom of thought. The old world of belief—where it was structured by authority, and where it functioned as an axis of exclusion to preserve orthodoxy—is dead and buried, and we should be thankful for its demise rather than nostalgic for the oppressive unity it once provided.

Ethan H. Shagan is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Rule of Moderation: Violence, Religion, and the Politics of Restraint in Early Modern England and Popular Politics and the English Reformation. He lives in Orinda, California.

Richard Rex: 95 Theses on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

RexLegend has it that on October 31, 1517, German professor of theology Martin Luther nailed Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation in a single, rebellious act. In The Making of Martin Luther, professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge Richard Rex shows that this momentous event never occurred. In this major new account of the most intensely creative years of Luther’s career, Rex takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. To learn more about the ideas in his book, read on for Richard Rex’s Ninety-Five Theses on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. 

I                          Martin Luther did not nail the Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church in     Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.

II                        That was a myth created by Philip Melanchthon through the conflation of hazy reports and recollections nearly thirty years later.

III                       The Ninety-Five Theses were posted that day – by mail, to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Hohenzollern.

IV                       The Ninety-Five Theses did not cross all Germany within four weeks. It was not until January 1518 that they spread like wildfire.

V                        The Ninety-Five Theses neither expressed nor reflected Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, which he had not yet formulated.

VI                       The key to justification by faith alone was the sense of certainty of divine grace which it conferred upon believers.

VII                     Such certainty is not only absent from the Ninety-Five Theses, but is explicitly denied in Luther’s covering letter to the archbishop.

VIII                    Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is a simple doctrine which many people, even some Protestants, find hard to understand.

IX                       Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was unthinkable without the prior development of the theology of indulgences.

X                        Justification by faith alone represented not so much the abolition of indulgences as their ultimate extension and elaboration.

XI                       Indulgences were not selling salvation or forgiveness. They were remittances of punishment in reward for charitable acts or gifts.

XII                     It was not the unpopularity of indulgences that drove Luther to protest in 1517, but their popularity.

XIII                    Luther did not proclaim what many had long thought but never dared to say. He said what had never before been thought.

XIV                    The Protestant Reformers came not from the margins of the late medieval church, but from its intellectual and moral elite.

XV                     Although there were many Protestant Reformers, Luther was neither one among many nor even first among equals.

XVI                    Luther was the one: they were the many. No Luther, no Reformation.

XVII                  The personality cult of Martin Luther in his lifetime saw the structure of a saint’s cult applied to a living person.

XVIII                 No other Protestant Reformer was the object of such a cult in their lifetime.

XIX                    Luther alone of the Protestant Reformers saw the impossibility of reconciling justification by faith alone with the Epistle of James.

XX                     All the early Protestant Reformers took their lead from Luther and found their inspiration in him.

XXI                    Ulrich Zwingli alone claimed that his path to Reformation was entirely independent of Luther’s.

XXII                  That Zwingli was entirely independent of Luther’s influence is mere flummery, dependent on Zwingli’s unsupported word.

XXIII                 Zwingli made this claim only after he had fallen out with Luther. It was not true.

XXIV                 Andreas Carlstadt was unwilling to play second fiddle to Luther, but was unable to snatch the lead from him.

XXV                  Philip Melanchthon was a derivative thinker who always bore the impression of the last person to sit upon him – usually Luther.

XXVI                 Martin Bucer was one of the most original Protestant Reformers, but lacked the charisma to win a significant following for himself.

XXVII               John Calvin’s most distinctive religious ideas were derived entirely from others, most notably from Martin Bucer.

XXVIII              John Knox was a prophet of the Old Testament disguised as an apostle of the New.

XXIX                 Ulrich von Hutten adopted Luther’s cause solely for the impetus it might give to the concept of the German Nation.

XXX                  Ulrich von Hutten had no grasp of Luther’s religious teaching as such.

XXXI                 The idea that Luther himself was only following the teaching of Augustine of Hippo is a radical misunderstanding of both men.

XXXII               For Luther, Augustine only ever said two things of real value – and he invariably misquoted one of them.

XXXIII              Luther’s doctrine of original sin was not Augustine’s, but one that Augustine repudiated when it was imputed to him by his opponents.

XXXIV              Luther’s misreading of Augustine on original sin was rich in consequences for his theology.

XXXV               Despite the early influence of Augustine upon him, Luther shed Augustinian habits of thought as completely as the Augustinian habit.

XXXVI              Renaissance humanism was not in any significant sense a ‘cause’ of the Protestant Reformation.

XXXVII            Luther always knew that he disagreed with Erasmus. Erasmus only slowly came to realise that he disagreed with Luther.

XXXVIII           By the time Erasmus saw Luther as a threat to the unity of Christendom, it was too late for his weight to turn the scales.

XXXIX              Erasmus failed to grasp the revolutionary significance of Luther’s teachings.

XL                      Luther perfectly appreciated the essentially conservative character of Erasmus’s religious teachings.

XLI                    Luther’s theology was formulated not in the language of Renaissance humanist scholarship but in that of the Vulgate Latin Bible.

XLII                   Luther’s theology depended not on the Greek or Hebrew scriptures, but on the Vulgate Bible and on the Latin theological tradition.

XLIII                  Luther’s appeal to the Bible alone was plausible and popular, but was soon shown by events to be fatally flawed.

XLIV                 This ‘scripture principle’ resulted in so many rival versions of Christianity that it showed itself to be no practical use at all.

XLV                   Luther never fully thought through the Biblical tag he loved to quote against his opponents: ‘All men are liars’.

XLVI                 For Luther, the plain sense of scripture meant taking Christ literally when he said, ‘This is my body’.

XLVII                For Zwingli, the plain sense of scripture meant not taking Christ literally when he said, ‘This is my body’.

XLVIII               Luther thought Zwingli a Nestorian. Zwingli thought Luther a Eutychian. Each knew the Bible was on his side.

XLIX                 Neither Luther nor any other Reformer advocated the right of the individual to make up their own minds about what the Bible taught.

L                         ‘Anticlericalism’ was not a ‘cause’ of the Reformation, though criticism of and violence against the clergy played their part.

LI                       Anticlericalism was not a growing problem that was bound to culminate in catastrophe for the late medieval Church.

LII                      If the friars had been widely resented and hated around 1500, Luther would hardly have joined an order of friars.

LIII                     Criticism of priests in the later Middle Ages was nowhere near as pervasive and corrosive as that of politicians in our own times.

LIV                    Medieval anticlericalism no more necessitated a Reformation than modern ‘antipoliticianism’ necessitates a revolution.

LV                      Just as we have no word for the denunciation of politicians, so too medieval Europe had no word for the denunciation of priests.

LVI                    The printing press was neither intrinsically nor necessarily more favourable to Protestantism than to Catholicism.

LVII                   The printing press might be considered the creation of the late medieval Church. The earliest printed item may have been an indulgence.

LVIII                  The classic printed text of the Reformation was not the popular pamphlet but the official catechism.

LIX                    The idea that preaching was in decline on the eve of the Reformation is a comical misapprehension.

LX                      The rapidly growing provision for preaching in the late medieval Church was a springboard for the Reformation.

LXI                    Luther and the Reformers were not the first to preach in the vernacular: preaching to the laity was always in the vernacular.

LXII                   Luther’s was not the first German translation of the Bible, though it was the most widely read and the most influential.

LXIII                  It is a misleading simplification to suggest that Luther invented congregational singing.

LXIV                 Lay participation in church music was an increasing feature of late medieval Christianity: Luther himself had been a choirboy.

LXV                   Far from being in terminal decline, late medieval Christianity was flourishing as never before.

LXVI                 The devotion of late medieval Christians to the upkeep and embellishment of their parish churches is one of the wonders of history.

LXVII                The Reformation was, from one perspective, the excommunication of the dead.

LXVIII               The elimination of the cult of the saints is one of the most striking achievements of the Protestant Reformation.

LXIX                 There is a deep affinity between the rejection of images from churches and the denial of the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist.

LXX                   The Reformation was a bourgeois phenomenon, but not a bourgeois revolution.

LXXI                 Yet Protestant beliefs and practices were no better suited to life in early modern cities than were those of Catholicism.

LXXII                The Reformation can to some extent be viewed as a rebellion of the rich against the poor.

LXXIII               Yet far from favouring capitalism, the early Reformers were even more firmly opposed to ‘usury’ than were their Catholic opponents.

LXXIV              The connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism was essentially fortuitous. There were plenty of Catholic capitalists.

LXXV                The connection between the Reformation and the enrichment of specific individuals was direct and unmistakable.

LXXVI              Luther was appalled when German peasants inferred from his doctrine of ‘Christian Liberty’ that Christians ought to be free.

LXXVII             It was the decisions of a generation of princes of the Holy Roman Empire that determined the fate of the Protestant Reformation.

LXXVIII            Princes were as likely as anyone else to be caught up in the fervid popular enthusiasm for Luther and his teachings.

LXXIX              Nowhere did the Catholic Mass cease to be celebrated until and unless it was forbidden by public law.

LXXX                Nowhere did Protestantism, once introduced, disappear except as a result of strenuous persecution.

LXXXI              The offer of the eucharistic chalice to the laity was one of the most potent and appealing symbols of the Protestant Reformation.

LXXXII             In almost all its forms, precisely because of its biblical focus, Protestantism did not weaken, but strengthened, patriarchal ties.

LXXXIII            Protestant polemic against Catholicism routinely deployed the stereotypes of misogyny along with accusations of effeminacy.

LXXXIV           The beards sported by so many Protestant Reformers consciously embodied and eloquently expressed their patriarchal proclivities.

LXXXV             Luther did not think Roman Catholicism made forgiveness too easy: he thought it made forgiveness too difficult.

LXXXVI           Luther did not think Roman Catholicism gave people a false sense of security: he felt it gave them no security at all.

LXXXVII          Luther remained a loyal Catholic until he could no longer believe that the religion of the Pope was the true Catholic faith.

LXXXVIII         The one thing on which almost all Protestants agreed during the Reformation was that the Pope was Antichrist.

LXXXIX           Luther invented the concept of the ‘invisible church’.

XC                     Luther’s belief in the existence and activity of Satan was almost as lively and compelling as his belief in Christ.

XCI                    Protestants and Catholics alike accused each of ‘judaizing’, deploying against each other the stereotypes of antisemitism.

XCII                   The ferocity of Luther’s antisemitism was extreme but not unique.

XCIII                 For example, Luther’s Catholic opponent, Johann Eck, published an encyclopaedic reiteration of the infamous ‘blood libel’.

XCIV                 Luther’s virulence in all controversy shocked not only his opponents but even his friends and followers.

XCV                  In 1500, western Christendom was a seamless robe. By 1600, it was a patchwork quilt. That was the Reformation.

Richard Rex on The Making of Martin Luther

Rex

The Making of Martin Luther takes a provocative look at the intellectual emergence of one of the most original and influential minds of the sixteenth century. Richard Rex traces how, in a concentrated burst of creative energy in the few years surrounding his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521, this lecturer at an obscure German university developed a startling new interpretation of the Christian faith that brought to an end the dominance of the Catholic Church in Europe. Luther’s personal psychology and cultural context played their parts in the whirlwind of change he unleashed. But for the man himself, it was always about the ideas, the truth, and the Gospel. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, The Making of Martin Luther is a splendid work of intellectual history that renders Luther’s earthshaking yet sometimes challenging ideas accessible to a new generation of readers. Read on to learn more about this key figure of the Protestant Reformation.

Why The Making of Martin Luther?
Martin Luther was very much a self-made man, though he would not have appreciated the compliment. From his point of view, he was made by God—not only in the basic sense soon to be inculcated by the catechism, but in the special sense that God had raised him up as an apostolic and almost apocalyptic figure to renew the preaching of the Gospel on earth. My book sets out the process by which Luther came to a new understanding of the relationship between the individual Christian and God, a process which integrally involved coming to a new understanding of himself.

Apostolic?
A vital word. Luther’s professional focus on the epistles of Paul—generally known at that time simply as ‘the Apostle’—in the 1510s was the crucible in which both his new account of the Christian faith and his new understanding of himself were forged. Luther modeled himself increasingly on Paul and came to see himself in apostolic guise.

Apocalyptic?
Definitely. Luther cannot be properly understood if due account is not taken of his sense of the imminence of the end times. Like most of his Christian contemporaries, he did not expect the world to last that much longer, but his own sense of the end of days was much more urgent, largely because of his conviction that the Papacy, which was swift to condemn him and his teachings, must be the Antichrist. The medieval myth of the Antichrist, which Luther adopted and adapted, saw this terrible figure as the herald of the final act of human history. If the Antichrist was in action, then the end really could not be far off.

Is your book a full biography?
The Making of Martin Luther is biographical, but not a biography, still less a full biography. Its unrelenting focus is on the development of Luther’s thinking, of his theology. If it was not for Luther’s ideas, we would never have heard of him. Chronologically, it is concerned with the first half of his career, the period of radical innovation, rather than with his last twenty years, the years of consolidation. It’s about how Luther brought down one establishment, not how he built up another.

One of your chapters is entitled ‘The Catholic Luther.’ Why?
Luther, like all the first generation Protestant Reformers, started out as a Catholic, and neither he nor the others can be understood without reference to their shared Catholic background. Luther only developed his ideas because he was a theologian. And he was only a theologian because of a very ‘Catholic’ event in his life: his ‘conversion’ to the professional religious life in fulfillment of a vow made to a saint in a thunderstorm. And Luther’s new ideas, though radical, reflected central concerns of late medieval Catholic theology, such as sin and grace, and the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. For example, Luther’s consuming sense of the superabundant sufficiency of Christ’s Passion for the redemption of sin was, paradoxically, a version of the same idea that lay beneath the Catholic doctrine and practice of indulgences, against which he notoriously protested.

There are lots of books about Luther, even lots of new books. Why read this one?
The story of Luther is still bedeviled by misunderstandings—about what his key ideas were and when they emerged, about what was really different in his ideas, and about the Catholic ideas from which he increasingly stood apart. Some misunderstandings can be traced back to Luther himself, whose vast and diverse output requires very careful and contextual interpretation. Others are canonized in the long tradition of Luther studies, passing like viruses from one biography to another. Historians can struggle with the theology, and theologians can stumble over the history and chronology. I’m not the best historian, and I’m not the best theologian. But few historians of this period can match my grasp of the theological issues, and few theologians can match my capacity to interrogate sources historically. This book has sought to put the story together again from square one, on the basis of a critical and unsentimental engagement with the sources. It strips away the rust of tradition to reveal an entirely fresh image of Luther in the crucial phase of his life.

Richard Rex is professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queens’ College. His books include Tudors: The Illustrated History and Henry VIII and the English Reformation. He lives in Cambridge.