Blog Template Theology of the Body: Was Martin Luther a Manichean?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Was Martin Luther a Manichean?

Historians such as S.J. Barnett take it as granted that Catholic apologists of the 16th century and beyond have generally "designated Luther and Calvin as Manichean heretics, from the third century dualism of Manes." (Barnett, "Where was your Church before Luther? Claims for the Antiquity of Protestantism Examined," in Church History vol. 68. no. 1, 1999). Other historians note that Luther's own marginal notes on the writings of the early fathers indicate his opinion that the Patristic rejection of the Manichean heresies was misguided. In fact, Catholics find the Luther: Manichean comparison made definitively in Pope Leo X's 1520 bull Exsurge Domine, which condemned Martin Luther's errors; in this text, the Pope describes Luther as "a new Porphyry rises who, as the old once wrongfully assailed the holy apostles, now assails the holy pontiffs, our predecessors."

As Luther well knew, the historical Porphyry referenced by the Pope was none other than an original proponent of the neo-Platonist ideals which translated into the cult following of Manicheism; St. Augustine, himself a convert from the dualist tradition of Manes, had referred to Porphyri in this passage in the City of God:

For, even when His angels hear us, it is He Himself who hears us in them, as in His true temple not made with hands, as in those men who are His saints; and His answers, though accomplished in time, have been arranged by His eternal appointment ...though Moses conversed with God, yet he said, “If I have found grace in Your sight, show me Yourself, that I may see and know You.” (Exodus 33:13)...But Porphyry, being under the dominion of these envious powers, whose influence he was at once ashamed of and afraid to throw off, refused to recognize that Christ is the Principle by whose incarnation we are purified. Indeed he despised Him, because of the flesh itself which He assumed, that He might offer a sacrifice for our purification—a great mystery, unintelligible to Porphyry's pride, which that true and benignant Redeemer brought low by His humility, manifesting Himself to mortals by the mortality which He assumed.” (City of God X.12, 13, 24)

What then is the content of the proposal that Luther might have been a Manichean, as some of his own notes on Augustine would seem to indicate? Augustine's ancient response to the Manichean heresy deal with the root proposal of God's total separation from the creature, such that it would ultimately become necessary to deny Christ's Personhood and Incarnation in human flesh. The extensions of this proposal also include such issues as those which most concerned the earliest Catholic respondants to Luther; to separate the divine from the creature in the manner of the Manicheans was and is to say, with Luther, that God is always hidden, that His power must be totally dissociated from human agency, that the true society of the elect is hidden and secret from the grubbier mass of the one Church, that humanity bears no image or likeness to its Creator, that our return to Him from our indebtedness and sin involves no bodily acts of reparation to His glory.

On the contrary, the Biblical faith of the Catholic Church resists these proposals with total allegiance to this fundamental truth: the Word has become flesh, and He dwells among us.