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“Here I Stand”: The Patristic Roots of the Reformation

Before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther famously said, “Here I stand.”

Or maybe he didn’t.

We do know, however, that he said the following:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

Of these remarks, Richard Muller comments:

In an eloquent and concise form Luther stated all the elements of the later Protestant doctrine of Scripture: the Bible is the ground of doctrine, to be interpreted by reason in order that logical conclusions might provide the basis for doctrines not explicitly stated therein. In addition, Luther insisted on the fallibility of all human authority and the consequent demand that all interpreters be bound to the living word as it speaks directly to the believer. (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 1, 98)1

Looking backward toward 1521 from the perspective of later developments, in other words, we can see the seeds of what would become distinctive of Protestantism in its approach to Scripture and authority in contradistinction to other models contemporaneously in use. This much is not surprising.

But there is another belief that often tags along with this one in the popular and apologetic conception on both sides of the Protestant/Romanist divide. This is the belief that, because something is a Protestant distinctive, it therefore marks an egregious rupture with the past.

So it perhaps is surprising to note that what Luther said at Worms is more or less a paraphrase of Augustine. In Epistle 82 to Jerome–part of their debate over the correct interpretation of Galatians 2.14ff., itself a significant text in sixteenth century debates over authority and fallibility which I have written about elsewhere–Augustine says the following:

On such terms we might amuse ourselves without fear of offending each other in the field of Scripture, but I might well wonder if the amusement was not at my expense. For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason (sed quia mihi vel per illos auctores canonicos, vel probabili ratione, quod a vero non abhorreat, persuadere potuerunt). I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error. Far be such arrogance from that humble piety and just estimate of yourself which I know you to have, and without which assuredly you would not have said, Would that I could receive your embrace, and that by converse we might aid each other in learning!

Notice that the main “elements” Muller refers to in the Luther quotation are all present in this passage from Augustine–a passage routinely cited during the Reformation2 (but also before: the first part of it shows up, for instance, in the Prima pars of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae): a special status for Scripture as containing the only pronouncements free from error; Scripture’s consequent intrinsic primary authority for determining Christian teaching and its consequent superiority to all other merely human productions, regardless of the credentials of those who are responsible for them; and the ancillary use of reason in the interpretation of that same Scripture.

Though Luther has recently been called a Rebel in the Ranks, what he said at Worms–often taken as iconic of the Reformation itself–was, in fact, rather traditional, and a far cry from the unweaving of the sacramental Thunderdome, even if it did introduce a much-needed dissonance into the contemporary Music of the Authoritative Spheres. And it is not, after all, very surprising that an Augustinian monk would, when compelled to speak on the relation of Scripture and dogmatic truth, sound an Augustinian note in doing so.

To conclude: if the Reformation gave us “modernity,” fine–as long as we can take the reductio where it needs to go and place modernity’s inception in the early fifth century. As I remarked once before: the next time you are tempted to exorcise modernity’s dark angels of disenchantment, please go ahead and blame Augustine instead.

  1. The translation of Luther’s words is that cited by Roland Bainton, Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 150, cited, in turn, by Muller.
  2. Luther himself summarizes it in his debate with Eck–see 68 n.115 here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.