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Friday, April 12, 2013

Luther, Calvin, and state absolutism

We have seen that the Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century had to carry on a two-front intellectual war on behalf of scholasticism and natural law: against Protestants and crypto-Protestants, and also against secularist apologists for an absolute state. These latter two seemingly contrasting groups were closer than merely having the same enemy. In many ways, they were twins and not simply fortuitous allies.
Despite their many differences, Martin Luther (1483–1546), son of a German miner, and John Calvin (born Jean Cauvin, of which Calvin is the Latinized name) (1509–64), son of a French attorney and leading town official, whose new religious sects between them swept northern Europe, agreed on some crucial fundamentals. In particular, their social philosophy and theology rested on the basic proposition that man is totally depraved, steeped in sin. If this is so, man could scarcely achieve salvation even partially through his own efforts; therefore, salvation comes, not from man's nonexistent free will, but as an arbitrary and unintelligible gift of unearned grace from God, a gift which He for His own reasons hands out only to a predestined elect. All of the non-elect are damned. Furthermore, as man is totally depraved and a slave of Satan, his reason – let alone his sense of enjoyment – can never be trusted. Neither reason nor the senses can in any way be trusted to form a social ethics; that can only come from the divine will through Biblical revelation.
To this day, fundamentalist Calvinists are taught to sum up their creed in the acronym TULIP, perhaps also recalling the Dutch fastnesses of Calvinism:

T – Total damnation
U – Unconditional election
L – Limited atonement
I – Irresistible grace
P – Perseverance of the saints

In short, man is damned totally, his atonement can only be limited and insufficient; the only thing that can and does unconditionally save an elect among men is God's irresistible grace.
If reason cannot be used to frame an ethic, this means that Luther and Calvin had to, in essence, throw out natural law, and in doing so, they jettisoned the basic criteria developed over the centuries by which to criticize the despotic actions of the state. Indeed, Luther and Calvin, relying on isolated Biblical passages rather than on an integrated philosophic tradition, opined that the powers that be are ordained of God, and that therefore the king, no matter how tyrannical, is divinely appointed and must always be obeyed.
This doctrine, of course, played into the hands of the rising absolute monarchs and their theoreticians. Whether Catholic or Protestant, these secularists pushed their religion to the background of life; socially and politically they held, as we shall see below, that the state and its ruler are absolute, that the ruler must seek to preserve and expand his power, and that his dictates must be obeyed. It is therefore the early Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation who saw and analysed the crucial link between the Protestant leaders and such amoralist secularists as Niccolò Machiavelli. As Professor Skinner writes:

The early Jesuit theorists clearly recognized the pivotal point at which the political theories of Luther and Machiavelli may be said to converge: both of them were equally concerned, for their own very different reasons, to reject the idea of the law of nature as an appropriate moral basis for political life. It is in consequence in the works of the early Jesuits that we first encounter the familiar coupling of Luther and Machiavelli as the two founding fathers of the impious modern State.1

Moreover, Luther had to rely for the spread of his religion on the German and other European monarchs; his preaching of all-out obedience to the ruler was reinforced by this practical concern. In addition, the secular princes themselves had a juicy economic motive for becoming Protestant: the confiscation of the often wealthy monasteries and other Church property. Underlying at least part of the motives of the monarchy and nobility of the new Protestant states was the lure of greed-and-grab. Thus, when Gustav Vasa, king of Sweden, became a Lutheran in 1524, he immediately transferred the Church tithes into taxes going to the Crown, and three years later he confiscated the entire property of the Catholic Church. Similarly, in Denmark the newly Lutheran kings seized the monastic lands, and confiscated the lands and temporal powers of the Catholic bishops. In Germany Albert of Hohenzollern accompanied his Lutheran conversion by seizing the lands of the Catholic Teutonic knights, while Philip of Hesse grabbed all the monastic lands in his state, much of the proceeds going into his own personal coffers.
In addition to grabbing the lands and revenues, the monarchs in each of the lands seized control of the Church itself, and converted the Lutheran Church into a state-run Church, to the plaudits of Martin Luther and his disciples, who championed the idea of a state-dominated Church. In the city of Geneva, John Calvin and his disciples imposed a totalitarian theocracy for a time, but this Church-run state proved to be an aberration in mainstream Calvinism, which triumphed in Scotland, Holland and Switzerland, and had considerable influence in France and England.
An outstanding example of a state-run Church as a motive for Reformation was the establishment of the Anglican Church in England. The defection from Catholicism of Henry VIII was accompanied by the confiscation of the monasteries, and the parcelling out of these lands – either by gift or by sale at low cost – to favoured groups of nobles and gentry. About two thousand monks and nuns throughout England, as well as about eight thousand labourers in the monasteries, were thus dispossessed, for the benefit of a new class of large landholders beholden to the Crown and not likely to permit any return to a Roman Catholic monarchy in Britain.

Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (2 volume set)

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