Delusion Makes You Happy

If Folly is any judge, that man is the happiest who is most thoroughly deluded.  May he remain in that state which comes from me alone and is so widespread that I doubt whether there can be found one person in the whole race of man who has been wise for every moment of his life and has never been touched by some madness or other. The reason a person who believes he sees a woman when in reality he is looking at a gourd is called crazy is because this is something beyond usual experience.  However, when a person thinks his wife, who is enjoyed by many, to be a an ever-faithful Penelope, he is not called insane at all because people know that this is a common thing in marriage.” Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, in The Essential Erasmus, trans. John P. Dolan (New York, 1964), 128.

In this famous satire, Erasmus gives folly a voice.  Here he explains how those who are the most deluded seem the happiest in this temporal life.

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Burning the Bull

“Greetings.  On December 10, 1520, at nine o’clock in the morning, all the following papal books were burned in Wittenberg at the eastern gate near the Church of the Holy Cross: the Decretum, the Decretals, the [Liber] Sextus, the Clementines, the Extravagantes, and the most recent bull of Leo X; likewise the Summa Angelica, Eck’s Chrysopassus and other books by this author, writings of Emser, and certain books that were added by different people.  This was done so that the incendiary papists may see that it doesn’t take much to burn books they cannot refute.  This is the news here.” Martin Luther, Letter 67 to George Spalatin, Luther’s Works 48: 186-87. 

Martin Luther wrote these words to George Spalatin, the court chaplain and secretary to Frederick III the Wise of Electoral Saxony on December 10, 1520.   Luther wanted him and others to know that he and his colleagues had defied Pope Leo X’s condemnation of his teachings in the Papal Bull, Exsurge Domine.  Luther had received reports that some authorities had burned some of his writings in other parts of Germany.

Luther’s colleagues, Philip Melanchthon and Johann Agricola organized the event and some students attended.  Luther personally threw a printed copy of Leo’s bull into the fire.  However, the other works that Luther identified held great significance. The Decretum through the Extravagentes contained the full collection of the medieval papal canon law reaching from the mid-twelfth through the mid-fifteenth centuries.  These texts were the legal basis for papal authority and burning them was an incredible act of defiance against the papacy.  The other books included a handbook to guide priests hearing confession (Summa Angelica) and the works by two of Luther’s early papal opponents: Johannes Eck and Jerome Emser. 

If Luther’s publications were a theological turning away from the late medieval papacy in 1520, then the public burning of the bull and the canon law represented a public display of that reality.  Before the end of the year, Luther published an explanation for these actions.*  Since evil books should be burned, Luther reasoned, then destroying these false works of canon law and papal theology was the proper action.  He then listed thirty articles of errors from the papal works including the pope’s grandiose claims to authority in church and world and the confusion of papal law and the gospel.**        

*Martin Luther, Why the Books of the Pope and His Disciples Were Burned by Doctor Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 31:383-95.

**On this entire post see Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation: 1483-1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis 1985), 423-26


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The Origin of Indulgences

A close reading of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses demonstrates that he was calling into question not only the doctrine of indulgences but also the late medieval sacrament of penance. Luther focused on the interior nature of repentance instead of sacramental penance administered by a priest. For instance, he wrote that truly repentant Christians already have complete remission of the penalty and guilt of sin without written indulgences (Thesis 36). Christians should not even seek to lessen the true penalty of sin through obtaining indulgences, but rather embrace the tribulation and the cross that characterized the outward form of true, inward repentance until death (Theses 3, 4, 40, 94, 95). Luther was asking a basic theological question: why would a truly repentant sinner want to receive an indulgence in place of fully participating in Christ’s passion through inner and outward repentance?*

In writing these things, Luther’s emphasis on interior repentance as the foundation of the outward act was similar to twelfth-century theologians’ focus on contrition as the inward part of penance and therefore, more significant. A great proponent of this emphasis on contrition and inner conversion, Peter Abelard (d.1142) criticized greedy bishops for granting partial indulgences at the dedication of churches and altars. These theologians questioned how giving a few coins as alms could remit or replace the outward acts of penance that resulted from a truly penitent soul. These criticisms led scholastic theologians in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries to significantly refine the doctrine of indulgences in relation to the sacrament of penance.**

These theological developments related to the doctrine of penance and indulgences emerged at the same time as a very significant religious and social movement in Western Europe known as the Crusades. While early forms of indulgences existed before the First Crusade, this movement stimulated the papacy’s expansion of the use of indulgences and the theological refinement of the doctrine of penance in the twelfth century. Pope Urban II’s plenary indulgence for the First Crusade reflected an earlier tradition of penitential practice. In the eleventh century after someone confessed a sin, a confessor imposed a penance, such as, fasting or a pilgrimage depending on the severity of the sinful action. Then, only after the sinner had fulfilled his or her penance, the confessor gave absolution.***

Based on the average layman’s inability to fully satisfy the debt of his sin through acts of penance, the Church offered the commutation of penance. This meant that the penitent could commute or exchange the completion of his or her sin through a lesser act that benefited the Church or others, such as, giving a donation to a monastery or specific church. Urban II’s indulgence went beyond a mere commutation and rather offered an armed pilgrimage to reconquer Jerusalem and pray at the Holy Sepulcher as a super-satisfactory act that completed all penance owed for all confessed sins. The burden of penances weighed heavily on a Christian knight’s soul and Urban offered an incredible opportunity to lift it.****

During the twelfth century the understanding of indulgences shifted to reflect a new theology of penance that emphasized contrition for sin and confession to a priest followed by absolution. Having received the forgiveness of sin’s guilt, the penitent then performed acts of satisfaction to pay for the penalty of sin. The notion of purgatory as a place where a sinner fulfilled his or her satisfaction through suffering became more precisely defined. An indulgence granted by the proper ecclesiastical authority (i.e., the pope) remitted the debt of the temporal punishment of sin. The papacy’s plenary indulgences remained limited to participants in various crusades, but bishops also expanded their offering of partial indulgences for confessed sins in the twelfth century. While some indulgences required attendance at churches or the veneration of relics, others allowed the penitent to give alms, donations for the building of churches, monasteries, hospitals, or even bridges without a specific requirement of attendance. During this century all indulgences began to emphasize the connection with contrition and oral confession. Instead of discouraging the practice of confession among laity, it seemed to increase lay participation in religious life or at least the bishops hoped it would do so. Additionally, indulgence promoters (questors) operated in the twelfth century and some unscrupulously absconded with the money raised through donations.*****

In the early thirteenth century the use of the indulgences expanded to include those who not only participated in a crusade, but also those who supported a crusade through prayer or financial support. Innocent III (1198-1216), who had been trained by scholastic theologians in Paris, sought to include all of Christian society in the crusading movement by arranging liturgical processions and appointing specific times for crusade preaching. Those who participated in these events could at the very least receive partial indulgences for contritely confessed sins. He also appointed preachers who promoted the more refined view of the sacrament of penance and combined crusade preaching with social and moral reform. At this same time Innocent approved the practice of indiscriminately allowing people to take the cross. Then, those who could not fulfill their crusader vow could later redeem or commute them and receive the plenary indulgence. This practice of vow redemption led to many individuals supporting the cause of crusading through financial support and prayer in thirteenth century.******

Late medieval popes expanded the availability of plenary indulgences to all penitents in the fourteenth century. Boniface VIII introduced the jubilee indulgence associated with a pilgrimage to Rome in 1300. Additionally, the bishops and popes continued to offer indulgences for deathbed confessions and other religious acts of devotion. By the fifteenth century the complete doctrine and practice of indulgences, which Martin Luther later attacked in 1517, had become commonplace. As the successors of St Peter, the Roman popes claimed that they held the power to a heavenly treasury filled with the merit earned by Christ’s Passion. Lastly, in the late fifteenth century, Pope Sixtus IV proclaimed that souls in purgatory could benefit from the papal granting of indulgences from that treasury of merit. Thereby, he only affirmed a practice that had existed for some time.*******

*Ninety-Five Theses see Luther’s Works, vol. 31 (Philadelphia 1957), 25-33.

**Matthew Phillips, “The Thief’s Cross: Crusade and Penance in Alan of Lille’s Sermo de cruce domini,” Crusades 5 (2006): 151-53; Nicholas Vincent, ‘Some Pardoners’ Tales: The Earliest English Indulgences’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002), 23-58.

***Martin Luther referred to this practice in Thesis 12 which reads, “In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition.”

****Ibid, 28-29; Marcus Bull, Knightly Piety and the Lay Response to the First Crusade (Oxford 1993), 166-71. For a general overview of the relationship between the Crusades and indulgences see Jessalynn Bird, “Indulgences and Penance,” ed. Alan V. Murray, The Crusades: An Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (Oxford 2006), 633-37.

*****Vincent, “Some Pardoners’ Tales,” 38-50; Mary C. Mansfield, The Humiliation of Sinners (Ithaca 1995), 34-35.

******Jessalynn Bird, “Innocent III, Peter the Chanter’s Circle, and the Crusade Indulgence: Theory, Implementation, and Aftermath,” in Innocenzo III: Urbs et Orbis, Atti del Congresso Internazionale (Rome, 9-15 September 1998), ed. Andrea Sommerlechner (2003), 501-24.

*******R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London 1970), 136-43.

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Defy Everything: Martin Luther in 1520

“Let us…commit the affairs of men to God in faithful prayer, and be calm.  What can they do? Will they kill [me]?  Will they revive [me] again in order to kill [me] again? Will they brand me [me] a heretic?  Christ was condemned with the wicked, with the seducers and the cursed men.  Whenever I meditate on the Lord’s Passion, I really burn to think that my tribulation is not only considered to be ‘something’ by such prominent people, and so many, but even a most important ‘something,’ when it reality it is just nothing. We are completely unaccustomed to suffering and evil, that is, to the Christian life.  Therefore let it be; the more powerfully they rise up, the more securely I laugh at them.  I am determined to fear nothing in this and defy everything.” Martin Luther, Letter 50 to George Spalatin (January 14, 1520), Luther’s Works 48:147-48.

This statement displayed the beginning of a shift in Luther’s attitude that would conclude in a theological turning point for the Western Christian world in 1520.  In this year, Dr. Martin Luther published a number of significant texts that demonstrated that theologically he had turned a metaphorical corner and was not looking back.  The papacy reopened Luther’s case about the same time as he wrote that letter to Spalatin.  Pope Leo X condemned 41 theological errors in Luther’s writings in the papal bull: Exsurge Domine on June 15, 1520.  After his reception of this document in early October, Martin Luther would have the choice to recent or face punishment as a heretic. 

By the time he received the papal bull, Luther had written two definitive works that demonstrated his decision to defy everything:   The first work, To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, appeared in August.  It represented a definitive break with the late medieval papacy and a direct attack on the authority of the “Romanists,” as Luther now referred to his main theological opponents.  The entire treatise was quite long and addressed theological, ecclesiastical, and social reform. 

Martin Luther published the second work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in early October.  Luther began the work with the bold assertion that the Church had only three sacraments: baptism, penance, and the Lord’s Supper. And he stated at the end of the treatise that penance lacked a divinely-instituted sign.  He rejected confirmation, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction as sacraments. To be clear, he did not reject these as practices, but he rejected them as divinely-ordained signs that give the forgiveness of sins.  The Western Church had accepted seven sacraments since the 12th century.  This was a momentous change.

Luther followed his intention expressed in the letter to Spalatin.  In 1520, he definitively and publicly rejected papal authority in the church and refined sacramental theology based on his study of Scripture.  The papal bull arrived in Wittenberg in early October.  While Luther agreed to write a conciliatory letter to the pope, he would never agree at this point to recent his teachings. 

On October 30, 1520, he wrote a letter to the young Duke John Frederick (later Elector of Saxony).  In this letter he expressed the same attitude that he had in January.  He explained in the following manner: “As the bull in no way frightened me, I intend to preach, lecture, and write in spite of it.”*  Luther did exactly this until he went to the Diet of Worms in April 1521 to plead his case before Emperor Charles V. 

*Letter 65 to Duke John Frederick, LW 48:183.  


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Fortune Grows Cruel

Fortune began to grow cruel and confuse everything.  Men who had easily endured hard work, dangers, uncertainty and adversity found that leisure and wealth, things desirable at other times, were a burden and the cause of misery.  And so, at first, greed for money grew, then greed for power.  Ambition forced many men to become liars, to hide one thing in their heart and have something else ready on their tongue, to value friendship and enmity according to convenience, not substance, and to put up a good face rather than have a good heart.  At first, these things grew gradually, they were  punished occasionally; afterwards, when this contagion invaded like a plague, the state changed, and the political power which had been most just and best became cruel and intolerable.’ Sallust, Catiline’s Conspiracy 10, trans. William W. Batstone (Oxford 2010), 15. [Emphasis added]

Here Sallust describes society in the breakdown of social virtue in the late Roman Republic.  The Romans had conquered much of Mediterranean world by the end of the 2nd century BC.  The blessings of wealth and leisure led to misery instead of happiness.  Ambition created liars and transformed society from just to cruel and evil.  If one examines the actions of the Roman Senatorial class during the late Republic then Sallust’s words give an apt description.  Roman Senators promoted Roman State’s actions to enrich themselves particularly in the area of foreign policy.   

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Love and Rewards

“God is not loved without a reward, although he should be loved without regard for one.  True charity cannot be worthless, still, as ‘it does not seek its own advantage,’ it cannot be termed mercenary.  Love pertains to the will, it is not a transaction; it cannot acquire or be acquired by a pact.  Moving us freely, it makes up spontaneous.  True love is content with itself; it has its own reward, the object of its love.  Whatever you seem to love because of something else, you do not really love; you really love the end pursued and not that by which it is pursued…True love merits its reward, it does not seek it.” Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God VII. 17. trans. Emero Steigman (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1995), 20. [Emphasis added]

Bernard focuses on the spontaneous nature of love.  Divine charity transforms the soul.  True love (verus amor) does not seek a reward.  It is not an contractual agreement.  A lover’s desire reshapes her affectus (the word translated as ‘will’ above) and redirects it toward a new object.  Therefore, she seeks no reward from a human lover or God.       


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Rewarding Merit and Confronting Evil

“The only proposals in the senate that I have seen fit to mention are particularly praiseworthy or particularly scandalous ones.  It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded, and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.  But this was a tainted, meanly obsequious age.  The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.  There is a tradition that whenever Tiberius left the senate-house he exclaimed in Greek, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ Even he, freedom’s enemy, became impatient of such abject servility.” Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, trans. Michael Grant (Penguin: London, 1996), p. 150.  [Emphasis added]

In this section of his work on imperial Rome, Tacitus examined the reign of Tiberius, who followed Caesar Augustus as ruler of the Roman empire.  Tacitus clearly considered Tiberius to be tyrant and most of the politicians of Rome to be sycophants. He also understood that an historian must evaluate the actions of historical figures.     

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The Meaning of Words

“The meaning of words should be carefully analyzed, and one should diligently ascertain the precise force of each and every term, both in itself and in the given context, so that one may dispel the haze of sophistries that would otherwise obscure the truth.  The considerations prompting the speaker may be surmised from the occasion, the kind of person he is, and the sort of listeners he has, as well as from the place, the time, and various other pertinent circumstances that must be taken into account by one who seriously seeks the truth.” John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon I.19., trans. Daniel D. McGarry (Philadelphia 2009), pp. 57-58.

While I was recently examining John of Salisbury’s definitions of military terms in a colleague’s work*, I found this quote from John’s famous text on the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric).  In this section on grammar, the twelfth-century theologian and philosopher, explained the importance of the meaning of words and how we use them.  Notice John of Salisbury’s focus in this quote: Truth.  Words have meanings and how a speaker or writer uses those words should bring clarity not confusion.

*John D. Hosler, John of Salisbury: Military Authority of the Twelfth-century Renaissance (Leiden 2013), p. 11.

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One Human Race

“For the human race is, more than any other species, at once social by nature and quarrelsome by perversion.  And the most salutary warning against this perversion or disharmony is given by the facts of human nature.  We are warned to guard against the emergence of this fault, or to remedy it when once it has appeared, by remembering that first parent of ours, who was created by God as one individual with this intention: that from that one individual a multitude might be propagated, and that this fact should teach mankind to preserve a harmonious unity in plurality.  Furthermore, the fact that a woman was made for the first man from his own side shows us clearly how affectionate should be the union of man and wife.” Augustine of Hippo, The City of God XII. 28. trans. Henry Bettenson (London 1972), 508. [Emphasis added] 

In this section of his magisterial work, The City of God, Augustine of Hippo examined the various philosophies concerning the creation of humanity.  He specifically wrote this work to refute pagan philosophical challenges to Christianity in the early fifth-century Roman Empire.  At this time, the political and social structure of the Western Roman Empire was collapsing in Europe and North Africa.  Augustine was a native of Roman North Africa and died as Bishop of Hippo (modern Annaba, Algeria) in 430 as the German tribe, the Vandals, besieged the city.    

In this quote above, Augustine explains that God created humanity to live together in social harmony.  Humans held a unique position in the God’s creation as the only early creatures who bore the divine image and likeness. However, the fall into sin brought the perversion of disharmony and conflict.  Notice his explanation that God never intended social divisions based on ethnicity or sex.  In fact, according to Augustine, God’s purposeful act of creation demonstrates the opposite.  God intended human beings to live in harmony.   

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Never Trust a Mob

“We dare not encourage the mob very much.  It goes mad too quickly…And it is better for tyrants to wrong them a hundred times than for the mob to treat the tyrant unjustly but once.  If injustice is to be suffered, then it is better for subjects to suffer it from their rulers than for the rulers to suffer it from their subjects.  The mob neither has any moderation nor even knows what moderation is.  And every person in it has more than five tyrants hiding in him.  Now it is better to suffer wrong from one tyrant, that is, from the ruler, than from unnumbered tyrants, that is, from the mob.”* 

Dr. Martin Luther wrote these words in 1526 in his significant tract entitled Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.  His study of Holy Scripture and ancient history influenced his ideas stated here.  In the previous section, he had explained how the Roman people overthrow many emperors.  In Germany in 1524-25, large groups of peasants were ransacking castles and whole towns.  They murdered many people and took over entire cities.  This was an organized insurrection and some of the participants followed pseudo-prophets, who told thousands of followers to cleanse the “ungodly” from the land.  The most famous of these false prophets was Thomas Müntzer.  He told his followers that God would protect them from the weapons of their enemies and they would create the kingdom of God on earth.**                   

Dr. Luther recognized the oppression of the common man and denounced the greed of princes and trading companies (similar to modern corporations).   He exhorted the princes to negotiate with the peasants and town dwellers.  He excoriated the moneylenders and bankers who lent money at exorbitant interest.  However, when he saw this insurrection, we usually call the Peasants’ Revolt, he called for it to be stopped with great force by the princes’ armies. The armies of the peasants numbered in the tens of thousands.  They destroyed castles and attacked monasteries.  They took over entire towns and often forced others to participate in their activities.  Dr. Luther also made clear that any captives or those who surrendered should be treated mercifully. Eventually, the German princes used their superior armies to crush the peasants.***

Despite what I have read from many modern critics, Martin Luther did not delight in these events nor did he see the peasants’ grievances as petty.  However, he knew one thing that was very important.  Mobs cannot be trusted.  Religious charlatans and criminals will use mobs for their nefarious purposes.  Such mobs only steal and destroy.  And, in the end, after the violence, most often conditions become much worse for everyone.  Calls for Change often hide the real agenda of those promoting it.  He concluded later in the same text: 

“There is a difference between changing a government and improving it as the distance from heaven to earth.  It is easy to change a government, but it is difficult to get one that is better, and the danger is that you will not.  Why?  Because it is not in our will or power, but only in the will and the hand of God.  The mad mob, however, is not so much interested in how things can be improved, but only that things be changed.  Then if things are worse, they will want something still different.”****


*Martin Luther, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, in Luther’s Works 46: 105-06. [Emphasis added]

**On Muntzer and his role in the Peasants’ Revolt see Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 2nd ed., pp. 137-150

***See Luther’s Admonition to Peace, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, and An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants in LW 46:17-85

****Luther, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, LW 46:111-112. [Emphasis added]

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