On a message board someone (I think perhaps a Catholic–it’s not really clear what his orientation is) has been trying to argue that the Reformation was a simple case of “revolt” against “authority”–a simple case of proto-Modernist zealots bravely standing up for the Rights of the Individual as determined by Human Reason Alone, etc., ad nauseam. I’ve done the following sort of “hop, skip, jump” summary of the numerous reasons why this is simply a poorly-written, ill-told story about the Reformation, but I’m sufficiently irked by this latest recitation of it to go ahead and post the response I wrote to this gentleman on the board.
The following is, as I said, merely a summary. Those who have read my original draft thesis on conciliarism will be familiar with the vast amount of detail that lies behind each and every point made in the below-reproduced sentential staccato. The post to which I wrote this response asserts brazenly that Luther’s burning of the canon law as a response to Leo X’s bull of excommunication is the quintessential example of why Protestantism was a “rebellion” against “authority.” It’s historical non-sense, and here’s why.
The burning of Leo’s bull was, it can be argued, actually an example of very common extreme frustration in the 16th century (and in Germany especially) with a runamuck absolute monarchy system that had been trampling underfoot for a long time all nuances and pleas for realistic application regarding the nature and extent of the authority of leaders. Basically it amounted to “The law doesn’t mean anything to the pope and his obsequious creatures, so to hell with it and we’ll do what we have to do to survive this disgusting tyranny.” No less a good papalist than Aquinas had written that unjust laws were no laws at all and could compel no one to obedience–which of course brings up the morass of issues of when and how and by whom a given law may be considered “unjust.” One stream of the tradition said no one on earth could ever judge the ruler because he was God’s Vicar; another stream said when the ruler as the head of a society goes stark raving mad, the society which he rules may–no must–remove him for the sake of its own continuation.
The canon law was burned by Luther certainly for personal reasons of his own (which may or may not have been reasonable), but also in no small part because it had become a mere tool in the hands of unaccountable Theologians who refused to have their totally a priori Grand Theology exposed to any kind of external critique, and thus its more extreme elements mollified. Cajetan’s rantings against the conciliarists of the previous century, in which rantings he clearly states that “theology” is to be always considered superior to “law” and that careful and moderate reformers like Gerson were simply idiots, are a perfect example of this–as are the opinions of some later 15th century papalists that whatever the pope judges to be the case is the case, without any possibility of appeal whatsoever.
This goes back into the 14th century debate over the relationship of canon law and theology, which in turn goes back into the 13th century discussions on the limitations of monarchy, which goes back into the 12th century systematizations of diverse legal principles, which goes back into the 11th century revolution performed by Gregory VII and his ardent monastic zealots, which goes back into the 9th century debates between Nicholas I and Hincmar of Rheims, which gets into the complicated debates about feudalism and its relationship to “authority” and “revolt”, which takes us back into the mixed legacy of the Roman jurists on the issue of the relationship between the king’s power and the people who elect him, and….well, perhaps you get the point I’m trying to make.
Luther is in no way, shape, or form an open / shut case of “rebellion” against “authority.” Everything depends on how one thinks of a whole vast complex of issues that inform those concepts. And besides, in the 16th century the Church was still feudalized, and in feudal society subjects who were repeatedly and rapaciously abused by their leaders had the God-given right to come to a point of resistance against them precisely because in becoming tyrants the leaders had forfeited their God-given right to expect obedience. The bishops as a general mass of leaders were feudal lords, and as feudal lords they received justice for their godless terrorizing of consciences and refusal to live up to the terms of responsibility stipulated by their claims to be in “authority.”
I’m tempted to say “Q.E.D.”, but I don’t want to be perceived as a rationalist.