Martin Luther, 16th Century Youtuber

I’ve started reading Luther today, working with On the Bondage of the Will. I’m working with an online PDF (this one), exclusively because I couldn’t find the actual book in the local library. The translation might be shonky or outdated, and if so all fault lies with the translator. So I’ve not read anything of Luther’s before, and I’d like to start by suggesting that On the Bondage of the Will is Luther’s version of a Youtube response video. The shade in this thing, holy hell.

We’ll deal with all of the context and what the book’s actually about later. Basically Luther is arguing with Erasmus (a Catholic) about free will and predestination – but don’t worry about that just yet. For now, just follow these opening moments with me. Luther starts off by acknowledging that Erasmus has put out a video book, and noting that usually he (Luther) responds to those sorts of things more quickly: “Some one may, perhaps, wonder at this new and unusual thing, this forbearance or fear, in Luther, who could not be roused up by so many boasting taunts, and letters of adversaries, congratulating Erasmus on his victory and singing to him the song of Triumph.” So, yeah, sixteenth century Youtube comment sections. Luther proceeds to roll out his diss track: compared to Melancthon’s Concerning Theological Questions, Luther says, Erasmus’s book is “so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should he carried in vessels of gold and silver.” You really have to see it yourself to believe it. Luther’s not fucking around.

There’s also one further comment that really struck a chord with the whole Youtube parallel. (I know I’m quoting some big chunks of text here, but Luther is a wordy guy – I’m trying to keep it down as much as possible.) Luther is talking about the reason why he’s bothered to write this big ol’ response to Erasmus: “My brethren in Christ press me to it, setting before me the expectation of all; seeing that the authority of Erasmus is not to be despised, and the truth of the Christian doctrine is endangered in the hearts of many. And indeed, I felt a persuasion in my own mind, that my silence would not be altogether right, and that I was deceived by the prudence or malice of the flesh, and not sufficiently mindful of my office, in which I am a debtor, both to the wise and to the unwise; and especially, since I was called to it by the entreaties of so many brethren.” Basically, he’s repeating a bunch of arguments that we hear today around no-platforming and the never-ending calls for Youtubers or whoever to denounce different Bad People. I don’t have the immediate links to hand, but both Hbomberguy and ContraPoints have talked in the past about how everyone expects them to denounce every single Bad Person moments after A Bad Thing happens. They’ve talked about how there’s a lot of pressure to be spokespeople, and provide a figurehead criticising and debunking 24/7. Luther is basically displaying the same sorts of thought process. Erasmus is a Christian teacher with a platform; The Truth is Endangered by a Bad Person and Luther Must Use His Own Platform to Condemn Him. That middle sentence is really the most telling, for me: “I felt a persuasion in my own mind, that my silence would not be altogether right.” That’s a mentality that we’re still experiencing today, nearly 500 years later.

So Luther sees his role as a minister in ways that bear a striking resemblance to the position of major left-wing Youtubers. He’s also kind of an asshole. I’m not sure if this is going to be a recurring issue with Luther, but in this text, at the very least, he’s coming across like a fucking asshole. Let’s back up a little bit and give the bare bones of context. In 1524, Erasmus published a treatise titled On the Freedom of the Will. I haven’t read the whole thing, because it’s not my focus, but the basic premise is that we have free will and predestination doesn’t wipe out our free will. Relatively unremarkable thing for a sixteenth century Catholic to say. Luther replied with On the Bondage of the Will, where he basically replies with ‘nah fuck that, free will doesn’t exist at all (but predestination is dope).’ We’re going to go over that whole part of the argument at a later date. For now, I just want to look at the respective openings of Erasmus and Luther. Erasmus opens by saying “I know that I was not built for wrestling matches.” He’s not super keen about this whole argument, but “in this way the truth, which is so often lost amid too much wrangling, may be more surely perceived.” Fair enough. Bit reluctant, but willing to take a tilt and see if it helps people more broadly understand what’s actually true.

Erasmus also says that he’s not very fond of making “assertions.” He would much rather “take refuge in the opinion of the Skeptics,” retaining a questioning or uncertain attitude rather than declaring and declaiming and making all these wild assertions. Moreover, he says, “I prefer this disposition of mine to that with which I see some people endowed who are so uncontrollably tied to their own opinion that they cannot bear anything which dissents from it.” He even admits that he might have misunderstood Luther’s argument, and for that reason he is “ready to learn from anyone if anything truer or more scholarly can be brought.” Sounds like an alright guy, huh. Sounds quite nice, quite reasonable, open to being wrong and actually thinking about and engaging with the other side.

Cue Luther: “not to delight in assertions is not the character of the Christian mind; nay, he must delight in assertions or he is not a Christian.” Ah fuck, we’ve got ourselves a debater-bro. “The Holy Spirit is not a Skeptic, nor are what he has written on our hearts doubts or opinions, but assertions more certain, and more firm, than life itself and all human experience.” Erasmus was extending an olive branch, trying to start a bit of a dialogue, demonstrate that he’s open to critically reflecting on his own position – and Luther just goes ‘no’ and smacks the olive branch down and jumps all over it. He inadvertently proves Erasmus’s point, twisting Erasmus’s relatively mundane statement of open-mindedness and trying to claim that Erasmus just doesn’t have any real faith or beliefs. It’s a weird argument that relies on a major misreading of Erasmus’s actual point. And – I mean, like I say, I haven’t read Erasmus’s whole thing, so maybe he turns into a shithead later on. But so far, Luther just sounds like a bit of a knob. He’s displaying many of the tactics that are still in use today, especially by those specific brands of asshole-debater-Christian that are usually also creationists or whatever. It’s a weird counterpoint to the earlier comment on left-wing Youtubers, but there you go. Luther demonstrates qualities that we’re seeing in all sorts of camps today.

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