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Luther, the Papacy, and the Quest for the Absolute

Brandon Tucker ()
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Brandon Tucker: Fordham University

No 17, Working papers from Research Association for Interdisciplinary Studies

Abstract: Luther’s rejection of papal authority was never really about papal authority. Luther’s revolutionary theological route was led by another, more important motivation: his fundamental, all-important “quest for the absolute.†Luther was animated by an obsessive desire to find a sure, certain, and unfailing basis for the Christian life- “the absolute.†This was his primary spiritual impulse, which he had acquired during his days as an anxious, guilt-ridden monk. Knowing his own sin, Luther despaired of finding an absolute basis for salvation in himself. Likewise, discovering the Church to be “merely human,†he found it necessary to untether the Christian life from any reliance upon the institutional Church. It was then only natural for Luther to reject the claims of absolute authority made by that Church’s head, the pope. This essay examines Luther’s radically changing views on the papacy during the critical period between October 31, 1517 (Luther’s publication of the Ninety-Five Theses) and December 10, 1520 (Luther’s burning of Exsurge Domine- the papal bull of excommunication). This transformation was not so much an evolution into something new, but the unfolding realization of something already present. Luther’s ultimate rejection of papal authority was implicated in his restless commitment to finding an absolute basis for the spiritual life and salvation. Historical circumstances merely provided the external occasion for him to flesh out the logic of this internal quest. This paper employs philosophical, theological, psychological, and historical insight to get at this deep, largely ignored component of Luther’s attitude towards the papacy.

Keywords: Luther; Reformation; Authority; Anxiety; Philosophy; Theology; Psychology; History (search for similar items in EconPapers)
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Date: 2018-05
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Published in Proceedings of the 9th International RAIS Conference on Social Sciences and Humanities, April 4-5, 2018, pages 242-248

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