This week we’re dealing with the second of Luther’s three 1520 texts, A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It’s a great example of what’s at stake for Luther in writing these tracts. Strictly speaking, this is a text about the different types of sacrament, asking which things should count as sacraments and how they should be handled or administered. If it was written by Aquinas, it would be super fucking boring. Luther sees it as an opportunity to call the Pope the anti-Christ. It’s a banger.
As another point of context, Luther opens his treatise by name-checking a bunch of fuckers who’ve been challenging his works on various fronts. He opens with this deep snark: “Like it or not, I am compelled to learn more every day, with so many and such able masters vying with one another to improve my mind.” Talking about one of his critics, he also offers this little gem: “He does not deserve to be harshly treated, for I think he was not prompted by malice. Nor should he be learnedly refuted, for all his chatter is sheer ignorance and simplicity.” It’s just – like this kind of attitude can be really obnoxious, and I hated it in On the Bondage of the Will, but I appreciate the dragging more as I go on. Keep it up, Luther.
After his introductory bout of fisticuffs, Luther offers his main thesis: “I must deny that there are seven sacraments, and hold for the present to but three – baptism, penance, and the bread.” The bread, by the by, refers to communion, while the four rejected sacraments include confirmation, which is like locking yourself in to religion, marriage, ordination, and extreme unction, which is the ‘you’re about to die’ blessing. We’re not really going to talk about any of those arguments directly, because I don’t hugely care about them – I’m more focused on a bunch of little asides that have interesting implications. So I’ll give a bit of context before we get into a particular area, but by and large I’m not actually focused on the key arguments of the text. Nothing unusual there.
Today, then, we’re dealing with an argument in the communion section. At the time of writing, communion was sort of halved. The congregation were allowed to eat the bread, but only the clergy drank wine. Luther wasn’t having that shit: he thought that either everyone should get both, or nobody should get anything. He sees both bread and wine as integral parts of communion, and says that denying wine to the congregation would be like baptising people without water. Then – and this is our bit – he gets into some arguments about 1 Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says “I have received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Luther takes that as a reference to communion: that is, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as passed down from the apostles, is also passed on to the church in Luther’s time and to us today. Therefore, he argues, we should be taking communion in the same way as the apostles did. They got the bread, the body of Christ, and they got the wine – and so should everybody else. Luther then defends against a further view – and I can’t quite tell if he’s trying to defuse potential counter-arguments, or whether he’s responding to points that somebody has already made. Either way, he says this:
“But what could be more ridiculous, and more worthy of this friar’s brain, than his saying that the Apostle wrote these words and gave this permission, not to the Church universal, but to a particular church, that is, the Corinthian?”
In short, Luther is concerned that people will reject his argument by saying oh, well, that only applies to the church in Corinth. It’s not something that’s meant to apply to everyone. Against that view, Luther argues that everything that Paul says applies to the whole universal Church for all time. If Paul’s letter to the Corinthians only applies to the Corinthians, then arguably Paul’s letter to the Romans only applies to the Romans. At that point, the whole faith would fall apart.
And that’s an interesting position for Luther to take. Let’s turn to, say, 1 Timothy 2, where Paul explicitly says “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Is that really something that applies to the whole universal Church for all time? Most apologists for Paul will defend these kinds of verses by explaining how they only really exist in a particular cultural context. They always have some weird historical explanation – well, you see, women in Paul’s time had their teeth removed at fifteen, so whenever they spoke they sprayed spittle everywhere, and if they spoke in church the spittle would mix up with all the dust on the ground from people walking in, and then the entryway would just end up like this massive mud pile, so Paul banned women from speaking in church so that they could keep the floors clean. These defences usually end with some variation on ‘But we don’t have that historical situation any more, so it doesn’t apply to us.’ Here’s the question: if you want to make that argument, and defend women speaking in church, then why can’t the Catholics restrict wine to the clergy? If we can say that things in the Bible are historically contingent statements to particular communities at particular times, why can’t the Catholics do it too?
We’ve ended up in this weird position now, where either Luther is right, and we can have wine but women can’t speak, or Luther is wrong, and women can speak, but nobody gets any wine. Either everything Paul says applies to the whole church for all time, or it doesn’t. Pick your poison. The correct response here, by the way, is to do an Aquinas and get recursive. You can argue that the claim that everything Paul says applies to the whole church for all time is itself historically contingent and only applies in certain cultural and historical contexts. Or, put the other way, the only thing that applies to the whole church for all time is that everything is historically contingent and depends on the circumstance. Oof. Let me know how that works out for you, anyway.