What did Luther ever do for philosophy?

Back in February, amidst striking and snow, I pondered the question “What would Luther do…?” in relation to some problematic picket lines. As things worked out, it proved possible to renegotiate the setting for the talk and I was able to meet Diarmaid MacCulloch and subsequently get his insight on some of my research. (It happened to tie in rather closely with the direction of his new Cromwell biography, so it is a pity I’d not felt bold enough to share my work sooner–but then I’m not sure it was ready.)

Despite the stormy beginnings, I have continued to be involved with the wider group exploring the influence of Martin Luther on philosophy. I am not a philosopher by preference. I think it’s because I’m more enthused by details than abstract stuff. But it was interesting to come together as a cross-disciplinary reading group, and to exercise myself with some of the translation questions that inevitably arise when you’re carrying out close reading.

Together we studied the 90-odd theses on scholastic theology that Luther had debated a month or so before his famous 95 theses went viral. Scholastic theology was the standard training for professional thinking about God when Luther was young. It cares a lot about categories, and logic. And at this point in his life, Luther had begun not to care for it. (Though he still knew how it worked, and sometimes worked with it.)

We also examined passages from De servo arbitrio, or “On the bondage of the will”, in which Luther attempted to take apart Erasmus’ arguments about human freedom and our capacity to choose.

And more recently, in September, we had a two-day conference–all funded by a grant from the White Rose Consortium, which supports interdisciplinary research collaborations between the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. I was speaking on day two, and by that point enough of my fellow speakers had declared themselves non-specialists to put my own nerves at rest.

I spoke about Luther’s philosophy of translation, looking at how he describes his work in the Open letter on translating (1530) and then what he actually does. It was good to go back to the letter; I’d used it when teaching MA students a few years ago, but there’s now a wonderful new edition as part of the Taylor series. Luther is very rude to his opponents, but his turn of phrase amuses me and there’s enough to be critical of, comparing what he says and does.

So it is good to hear there will be funding to carry on these activities for a little longer. An incentive for others at Sheffield, Leeds and York to consider a White Rose Collaboration, perhaps?

A detail from my slides (12 September 2018), with an inset detail from Luther’s Sendbrief, drawn from the Taylor edition (a3v).

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