Martin Luther. The Dawning of Modernity


The core thesis of this new book by Danilo Castellano is quite simply this: Luther is modernity.  Embodied in the philosophical and theological substance of the Protestant Reformation are all the principles of modernity, including the moral, political and juridical ones. The primacy of individual conscience, democracy founded on the sovereignty of the majority, the separation between State,  ethics and religion, the social contract theory applied in politics, secularization and the ejection of God from the public sphere, the refusal of nature and the transcending of man in late modernity, western nihilism. . . . .when the grounds of these phenomena are studied in depth, they can be traced back to their matrix, which is the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is the dawning of modernity, just as implicit in the breaking of any day is the rest of that day. He is so, however, not only as ‘beginning’, but also as ‘principle’.

This is an important, clear, well defined and well argued thesis. For precisely this reason it is also an irritating one, and especially so in the current “ecumenicalizing” context that seems like it wants to forge ahead at all cost, which means without very much theoretical clarity and prizing praxis and behavior that are basically part of Lutheran heritage. It is also a major challenge for the Church of today invited to ‘take it or leave it’: Luther and modernity as a single package. This thesis’ clarity thwarts any and all tactics. When taking a close look at the selfsame essence of modernity – obviously understood as vision and not in an historical sense – we reach Luther. Hence, the acceptance of modernity would lead the Church to its own ‘protestantization’, to a genetic mutation in the true sense of the word, while embracing the substance of the Lutheran revolution would entail the ensuing acceptance of modernity at large, including its nihilistic outcome: its swan song, one might say, with respect to the crowing of a rooster at dawn.  Readily evident, therefore, is the seriousness of the issue raised by Mr. Castellano.

When delving into the details of the book after this global evaluation, we can see how Mr. Castellano considers Luther’s thinking to be a form of Gnosis, and the Reformation’s attack against the Catholic Church to be a Gnostic heresy imbued with rationalism and a revisited edition of the sin of the origins. Coming once again to mind therefore is the idea that since modernity is a macro-form of Gnosis, an expression of the rationalism of our ancestors in Eden, the acceptance of the Lutheran principles represents the complete negation of Catholicism. Therefore, a revolution and not a reformation.

For example, if we take the liberty /conscience / self-determination cluster we can readily see in Luther the matrix of these concepts now dominant in such an absolute way in social, juridical and political life. The liberty of each Christian is absolute for Luther and liberty is understood as sovereignty. This has consequences in both the religious and the political sphere.  Issuing forth in the latter is voluntarism which Luther also takes from his Occomist masters, and therefore the social contract theory and juridical positivism. The negation of nature entails (in Gnostic terms) the negation of the order of created reality whereby liberty is detached from ontologically grounded laws and rendered sovereign in its own right. This also gives rise to the modern idea of democracy which is nothing more than the transfer of individual voluntarism to the collective level. Just as an individual chooses and desires outside of any reason, the members of the political community choose and desire without reason, and their choices are thereby always just, not because they express a truth or a good, but because they have made themselves independent. In this case the expression “political community” is actually inappropriate because it is such only if held together by something that precedes and constructs it. In the case of Lutheran voluntarism and democracy ‘by a show of hands’, however, what we have is sovereign absoluteness held together by nothing at all.  This is why there is the individual counting of citizens in modern democracy, but no community, and hence modern individualistic democracy is naturally open to totalitarianism. Conscience, according to Luther, has no obligations other than those dependent upon itself, and therefore it is not a matter of consciousness of good and evil, but conscience that produces good and evil. Thus is it for the citizens of a political community: far from recognizing an order of common good, their conscience produces one. In this case, however, there is a conflict among individual consciences – anarchy in origin – whose only solution is submission to a concrete expression of power stronger than everyone together. This is the passage from modern democracy to totalitarianism.  The fact that the Catholic Church has never canonized democracy may lead people to think there really is a compulsory link, as Mr. Castellano argues. Moreover, numerous excerpts of Evangelium vitae and Centesimus annus of John Paul II seem to confirm this. Then again, it is also easy to understand that if you begin with anarchy at the outset there will be no way to surmount it in a community without anything less than a forced and imposed reductio ad unum (as Marsilius of Padua, Hobbes or Bodin were wont to say).

Remaining within the realm of conscience in Luther, interesting are two points developed in depth by Mr. Castellano: one regarding Rousseau, and the other regarding Hegel. As we know, the only form of “truth” publically admitted nowadays is sincerity, or being consistent with self. The vast and tragic damage caused by this principle of self-determination in the areas of life, procreation and the family (just to mention these) is evident to one and all even though being denied and often left unsaid for  ideological reasons or deliberately. Criticisms of this principle – for example, by Charles Taylor – seeking to single out its internal contradiction are useful but not sufficient, because all they do is reveal a contradiction internal to conscience rather than in the relationship between conscience and reality. Mr. Castellano reminds us that Rousseau considered it sufficient to listen to self in order to do good insofar as conscience is a natural sentiment of a naturally good person. In his turn Hegel proposes the consistency of the system as truth. The two of them concur on truth as consistency disincarnated from reality (another Gnostic element), that is to say as totalitarianism of the ‘I’ (this is the case of Rosseau; Benedict XVI spoke about the totalitarianism of the ‘I’ and its cravings) or a transcendental and historical ‘I’ embodied in the State (this is the case if Hegel). From this point of view as well the rationale of consistency with self or the consistency of the system generates totalitarianism. Voluntarism is a totalitarianism of the individual over himself, which in Hegel becomes the totalitarianism of the State looked  upon as an individual subject incarnating Good.

Danilo Castellano examines the social, juridical and political consequences of the Protestant Reformation in detail. Nonetheless, he also mentions some theological consequences, especially with reespect to the relationship between conscience and law, as well as the origin and nature of the ecclesial Body.

According to Luther – Castellano notes – the Church is “the union of all believers in Christ on earth”. This is a purely spiritual union in the absolute liberty of the children of God. It is not a Body constituted by Christ and is not subject to dogmas, laws or institutions. It might be said – as many Catholics in German speaking countries assert today with the expression “We are the Church” – that the Church is not what makes Christians, but Christians who make the Church. Ensuing wherefrom is the principle that in the people of God we are all equal according to the principle of the sovereignty of the people in modern democracy, and that the Church has to be governed from ‘the bottom up’.

In the Lutheran version of Christianity the unity between faith and reason is severed, and consequently the unity between politics and religion, State and Church as well. Pope Gelasius’ definition of the issue in the V century – pertaining to the Church was auctoritas and to the State potestas, but the latter depended on the former for its legitimacy – collapses. The State is now pure force suited to  ensuring control over persons whose nature is hopelessly corrupt. The activity of the State is separate from any ethical aim or ultimate purpose, and is not ordered to the common good. What this entails in concrete terms is a supremacy of the State over the Churchy in public affairs, with the birth of modern laicity which can but turn into laicism. The Church is an intimate and private matter because it is only a spiritual community. The State either directly governs the public expression of worship, according to Luther’s  intentions, or eliminates any form of worship in public, as occurs in the strictest form of Jacobinism, as well as in the form of Americanism, albeit attenuated in ways and means but not in substance.


Danilo Castellano, Martin Lutero. Il canto del gallo della modernità, ( Martin Luther. The Dawning of Modernity) Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, Napoli 2016.