Martin Luther and Individualism?

April 22, 2017 in General

Did the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther, deliberately set out to shatter authoritarianism in early modern Europe, as sociologist Frank Furedi has suggested? In a recent History Today article, Furedi argues that the Reformation was there at the inception of early modern concepts of individuality. Apparently, the modern concept of individual freedom of conscience and autonomy arose with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. Furedi argues that this expression of dissatisfaction at Renaissance era Catholicism led to a chain of events that decisively undermined the idea of authority itself. Luther demanded that the papacy respond to his criticisms of the Church’s moral failings and Furedi suggests that Luther did not simply call into question the moral authority of the Church. His articulation of dissent led to a sentiment that would legitimise dissent and rebellion against all forms of authority.

Luther’s challenge to the Renaissance papacy coincided with the rise of secular political forces that challenged its power. This simultaneous religious and political dissent resulted in the disintegration of unified Western European Christendom. It also provided an irresolvable debate about the provenance and scope of early modern Christian religious authority. Luther claimed that Christians could have direct access to God without formal intermediary institutions and officials, as with Catholicism, which threatened the role of the Catholic clergy and hierarchy. A wider debate on obedience and resistance to political rule also emerged as a consequence. Religious and political authority became a subject for philosophical debate. Until this point, authority was rarely questioned in political rhetoric. While the authority of individual rulers or the legitimacy of a particular claim to authority was challenged, authority itself was not subject to detailed critical analysis and debate.

Luther did not merely cite a right to individual conscience to justify his own actions, but articulated a compelling case for people being able to act reflexively accordance with the dictates of their consciences. In so doing, his argument implicitly called into question the right of external religious authority to exercise power over peoples subjective lives.

Luther’s rhetoric of the freedom of individual religious consciences are said to be an important step in the conceptualisation of a new limit on the exercise of religious and political authority. His Treatise on Good Works (1520) stated that ‘the power of the temporal authority, whether it does right or wrong, cannot harm the soul’. Idealising the “soul”/conscience/subjectivity and its protected status from external coercion allegedly encouraged European culture to examine individual conscience and eventually to endow the secularised “self” with independent moral authority. Liberating subjectivity from the power of external authority meant that Martin Luther’s theology ultimately led to the delegitmisation of the weakening of the very concept of religious authority and political absolutism as well, although that would take until the seventeenth century English Civil War and eighteenth century American and French revolutions to be more fully articulated.

When Luther argued that the soul should be free from secular imposition, it led to the paradox of subjective freedom’s coexistence with external political absolutism. This contradiction could not continue to exist and apparently contradictory relations to authority could not indefinitely co-exist without one giving way to another. However, Luther had provided a discourse where the recognition of a subjective sphere where political rule could not legitimately penetrate the individual ultimately challenged the status of absolutist religious and political authority. Over the next two centuries, it gradually became clear that when individuals were granted freedom of conscience, they gradually found it difficult to unquestioningly obey any form of religious and political authority.

When Luther suggested that he was bound to obey his individual conscience, he provided the basis for a religious and political argument that could be successively radicalised to challenge other forms of authority. Radical English historian Christopher Hill later argued that the ‘essence of protestantism – the priesthood of all believers – was logically a doctrine of individualist anarchy’.

Commendably, Furedi is careful to acknowledge the limitations of his claims. He accepts that Martin Luther himself was not a lover of human freedom, as he insisted on absolute obedience to the external authority of secular princes, as evidenced by his strident condemnation of the German Peasants’ Revolt in Munster in 1535 and his support for its bloody repression. He was gripped by his own determination to uphold external secular authority. Though the Reformation did articulate some anti-authoritarian tendencies, and created preconditions for the restraint of external threats to freedom of conscience, it also came to sanction the use of unrestrained coercion in public life. Human aspirations for individual liberty and the need for order in public co-existence and social solidarity remains unresolved, five centuries after the emergence of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s aims were initially modest- he sought to reform what he saw as corruption within Roman Catholicism. However, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation response escalated into a bitter and violent period of intermittent religious warfare over the next two centuries across Western Europe. Ironically, the century of interneccine religious warfare that consumed much of Western and Eastern Europe (1524-1648) delegitimised the moral authority not only of the Roman Catholic Church but also of Christian hierarchies per se. Religiously articulated dissent and civil war deconstructed the moral and political influence of Christianity itself, which further led to criticism of analogous secular absolutisms. After early modern institutional authority lost the imprimatur of the unquestioning religious legitimisation, it had to rearticulate its raison d’etre in the increasingly secularised external world and new secular arguments had to emerge to provide new sanctions for the exercise of religious and political authority and deference to it. After 1517, neither religious or political authority in European societies would enjoy absolute, unquestioning acceptance from its subjects, who gradually became autonomous and enfranchised citizens in a still-ongoing process.

However, Furedi’s claims have not gone unchallenged from conservative Christians. Writing in the Patheos blog, Gene Veith (07.04.2017) argued that it was misconstrual to trace a direct line from Luther’s advocacy of freedom of Christian individual religious subjectivity and conscience to modern concepts of secular freedom of individual conscience and consequentialist morality. Veith notes that this reckons without the concommitant of ‘sin’, reimagined as individual defiance to concepts of external divine absolute authority and its secular representatives on Earth. Thus, Lutheranism and analogous forms of early Protestant Christianity became subordinate religious state institutions that acted to legitimise obedience and consent to secular authority. As time went on, however, they also came to exercise coercive authority over individual misconduct such as adultery, premarital sex, illegitimacy, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, drug policy and euthanasia. We are still in the process of removing that cold clammy authoritarian hand from modern secularised concepts of individual conscience and freedom of moral action today.

However, Furedi dissents from this approach, noting that in place of conservative Christian “spiritual direction” of the ‘soul’/conscience, modern individuals have substituted the secular therapist or expert. Actually, it’s somewhat more complicated than that- contemporary liberal and conservative people of faith have adopted psychotherapeutic discourse and expertise to supplement and accompany their exercise of pastoral direction and authority. Nor is it the case that individual clients are required to accept the authority of expertise if uncorroborated by institutional compulsion- witness Dora/Ida Bauer’s angry repudiation of Freud’s moral authority and perceived misinterpretation of her inner subjectivity. Furedi’s interpretation of the authority of secular therapeutic expertise is overdetermined and unconvincing and his repudiation of its claims are problematic if they substitute authoritarian religious colonisation of the self, conscience and subjective life of the individual. Which, unfortunately, they seem to do.

Source: Frank Furedi: “The Invention of Individual Freedom” History Today: 22.03.2017:

Also Recommended:

Frank Furedi: Authority- A Sociological Analysis: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2013.

Gene Veith: “Martin Luther as Inventor of Freedom” Patheos: 03.04.2017:

Not Recommended:

Frank Furedi: “Making a Virtue of Vice” Spectator: 24.01.2002:

Frank Furedi: “The Seven Deadly Personality Disorders” Frank Furedi.Com: 12.03.2008:

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