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The Unfortunate Fate of Luther in the Ibero-American World

The Unfortunate Fate of Luther in the Ibero-American World

by Andrew L. Wilson

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from LF Winter 2013

The matter of Luther’s reception in Ibero-America is corrupted. It is corrupted because Luther was never received as a thinker, a theologian, a linguist, or a spiritual reformer, but as a heretic, an enemy, a devil, and a disease. The principal concern of those who knew anything of him was to inoculate and expunge Luther’s necrotic, contagious cancer, whose very mention could ruin the unprecedented opportunity of ruling an orthodox land free of heresy.[1] This principally medical understanding of healthy doctrine found a robust lodging in the powerful and self-reinforcing religious identity of the great monarchs of southern Europe, notably Portugal and Spain, and in the papacy itself.

These two images—of a healthy, robust, intact, integrated body, and of a foreign infection—would endure for centuries, reaching a height, if such could even be possible, in the racial overtones evoked by the nineteenth-century critic andnationalist Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, whose Historia de los heterodoxos españoles glibly explains, overmany thousands of pages, that theReformation and other heresiesnever took root in his native land forthe simple fact that la lengua española no se forma decir herejes—“the Spanish tongue is not formed to utter heresies.”[2] This a peculiar formulation, as it leaves undefined whether it is the well-formed Spaniard who knows what orthodoxy is or whether a Spaniard knows himself automatically to be orthodox simply because he is Spanish.

The latter was certainly the case throughout Latin America’s history, at least in Hispanic America, where Spanish purebloods staffed the clergy. Indeed they still do, especially the episcopacy, where an indigenous bishop is as rare as a Pentecostal indio is common. In many places such as southern Mexico and Guatemala, most of the indigenous population has turned to the more freely adaptable charismatic churches.[3]

Defining just what “Ibero”-America might encompass, moreover, makes for an ever-receding horizon. For this region has, in addition to linguistic and colonial connections, an overwhelming hegemony of “Catholic” culture, such that even when one is busy being irreligious or differently religious, one is always at the same time very busy not being Catholic. As we shall see, the particular kind of “Catholic” that took root here was forged in the anti-Reformation fires of the second half of the sixteenth century: hardly a neutral position from which to appreciate the father of all Protestants.

Thus in speaking of “Luther” and “Ibero-America,” a host of matters arises: cultural synthesis, minority resistance, colonization, public discipline. Luther in Ibero-America is not a man, or even a heretical theologian; he is a cipher when not an outright demon. If for the Germans Luther was Moses’s bronze serpent, held aloft to chase away evil snakes and heal the sick in the wilderness, for the Spanish he was rejected as a foul and misleading idol, as happened to the same bronze serpent under Hezekiah.

Only in the late twentieth century is there anything like a “scientific” appreciation of the man and his work in Spain, that most Catholic of realms, and nearly all of this after the Second Vatican Council’s airing-out of the doctrinal attic. So when we speak of Luther before the 1960s, we speak of a phantom, of ethnic enclaves, or of liberal revolutionaries. This is itself fascinating, and we can learn a great deal, if not about Luther, then about the societies that accepted or rejected him, as Alicia Mayer has thoroughly demonstrated in cataloguing the strange life of Luther the archheretic in the iconic imagination of Counter-Reformation Mexico.[4] In these images Luther is clearly an idea who is variously played by the devil, crushed by the wheels of the chariot of orthodoxy (a theme of Peter Paul Rubens), or whose followers are struck dead by lightning bolts streaming from a consecrated host.

So this subject cannot be addressed directly. The confessional divisions ossified even before news of Luther reached Iberia, let alone Latin America. And this remained the case for three hundred years, until anticlerical revolutionary governments hoped that importing German Protestants could help bolster their emerging nations’ technical expertise and democratic spirit.[5] These revolutionary concerns have continued, peculiarly transformed, as the nineteenth century’s cultural philosophers Max Weber and Karl Marx extended their enormous influence among Latin America’s church intellectuals, who grappled with their theology of liberation to comprehend the forces that have rocketed the northern hemisphere to recent wealth and stability while, perhaps as a result their own fate has lagged considerably behind.

As much as Luther has been defined as a heretic, Latin American Luther-interpreters have defined their own Latin American context not with reference to Catholic culture but to the social and demographic position of their own enduring and widespread political oppression and economic inequality. The sociohistorical and sociological readings of liberal Protestantism versus monarchical Catholicism have tended to dominate discussions in our largely post-confessional age. Luther sits quite well amongst Latin America’s intellectual elite, for the same reasons he was championed in revolutionary Europe, as a hero of conscience, a courageous voice against an overlording hegemony.[6] This is tiresome for the weathered Luther scholar, but such mythologies are as difficult to uproot as they are powerful, especially where there is still a strong connection with ecclesiastical power and governmental elites.

This trend of using Luther as a hero of conscience also for Latin America sidelines the heresy quibbles and uses him instead to diagnose an ecclesial body sickened not by heresy but by the complacency of bourgeois structures in the church. So although Luther’s theological presence was always attenuated, even this modest use heightens the ever-present distinction between understanding what Luther meant in se and what he signified to those who invoked his inflammatory name.With all this posthumous slander and distant praise, it is easy for us

to forget the intimate connection of sixteenth-century Spain with the events of Luther’s Reformation. Salutary reforms to religious life, many of them already flourishing in Spain before Luther, were simply jettisoned when they gained, after 1520, the damning association with the “Lutheran” heresy. Several notable movements were diagnosed as being tainted with the Lutheran disease and thus were expunged outright or forced into attenuated and even clandestine existence for the centuries to come.[7]

Humanism and Illuminism

The first of these was Spain’s burgeoning humanist movement, patronized by Franciscan cardinal and later regent to young Emperor Charles, Ximénez de Cisneros. His activism, peculiar for its hermetic and numerological ticks, had as its crowning accomplishment the establishment of a new school at Alcalá de Henares, where the new disciplines particularly of languages and philology were to be taught and spread. It was a risky endeavor, less for its intellectual raciness than for the overwhelming reliance of his project on instructors of very recent Jewish ancestry.

The new university’s greatest literary production, sprouted from its rich and varied ethnic soil, was the so-called Complutensian Polyglot Bible. Polyglot indeed, for it featured, in six columns of equal size, the Bible’s complete text in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Syriac, Aramaic, and Coptic. This truly monumental achievement, were it ever to have been promoted and used, could have single-handedly injected a vitality into textual criticism that was not to be seen for decades, even in book-saturated northern Europe.[8] But such linguistic wealth relied almost exclusively upon the truly prodigious intellectual inheritance of Spain’s converso minority. And this multi-volumed tome, despite its full-edged imprimatur, was so far beyond everybody outside the ex-Jewish community that it was hobbled before it even went to press—a hobbling made complete when five hundred of the initial six hundred exemplars went down with the ship on a voyage to Rome.

Cisneros’s concerns in patronizing Alcalá and the Polyglot Bible were peculiar, both distancing him and bringing him closer to the soon-to-explode protesting movement up north. Like Luther’s later patron and protector Frederick the Wise, Cisneros took up the humanist’s mantra to go ad fontes to attract fame to his city and bring lagging Spain up to Renaissance snuff. But he also wanted secret knowledge, was bizarrely curious about the Kabbalah, and hoped in a way only an apocalyptic thinker could to crack the codes hidden within all those mysterious Oriental tongues.[9]

There were no reforms of hierarchy attached to this new learning, but association with the high-minded Erasmus, also known as El Roterdamo, soon brought an end to that neutrality. And here Luther played a precipatory role. The Dominicans in the Inquisition sensed, half correctly, that these northern menaces had been fueled by Erasmus the itinerant humanist, his blatant calls for ecclesiastical reorganization, and his haughty dismissal of much church practice as vain and meaningless. Erasmus’s own proposals were revolutionary, but in the tolerable manner of so much parlor banter. Even though he himself never mounted any organized rallying cry, the association with the nascent and rebellious Reformation was quickly seized by the Inquisition, which seems to have been fairly chomping at the bit to relive the glory days of 1492 when it oversaw the cleanup after the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims. Luther came on the scene just in the nick of time to save an institution in the full throes of an identity crisis.[10]

Another movement sprang up around the same time: illuminism. Heavy with converso participation, this spiritual movement popularized fairly standard monastic contemplation. But in divorcing it from the sacramental and other rigors of the cloister, it brought the whole superstructure of priestly mediation under question. With prayer, and even Scripture, these “mystics” sought direct contact with God through the Holy Spirit.[11] This is a habit we know to have had a great influence on the young Martin Luther, whose first publication, in 1516, was a preface to the Theologica Germanica, a book-length exhortation and demonstration of precisely this kind of renewed life through prayer. Luther always praised Bernard of Clairvaux, long after bashing most other schoolmen to bits, because he saw in his example of sacramentally-disciplined illumination just the antidote needed to the dry bean-counting of spiritual merit inherent in late scholastic purgatorial theology. The degree to which Luther himself was what we now call a “mystic” has only recently come to prominence, and it certainly places the him much closer to his Spanish counterparts than previously imagined.[12]

But Luther’s didn’t remain a drawing-room exercise, like much of illuminism, and his meteoric rise as the latest archheretic ensured the demise of Spain’s otherwise anemic movement. From 1520 on, the Inquisition exercised ceaseless vigilance over the slightest symptom of this latest and most contagious plague.[13] Books were much more closely regulated, foreign travel and trade much more suspect, and the nativist know-nothing tendency, brought to perfection by the purge of 1492, found renewed energies. A new and foreign threat loomed, and it’s not hard to imagine that many inquisitors were in some backward way pleased to have a new object to expunge.[14]

“Lutherans” in Exile and Pious Circles

On account of energetic persecutions, the next generations saw both exile and clandestine activity as the locus for reforming minds. A handful of Spain’s brightest, corrupted by Alcalá and its humanist currents, sought to further their formation abroad and made their respective grand tours to sundry hotbeds of both publishing and reform—Basel, Strasbourg, Mainz, Geneva, and even Wittenberg itself.[15] Francisco de Enzinas made his way all the way to Wittenberg to perfect his Greek under Philip Melanchthon. Then, after working his way through the New Testament, he had it printed and even presented an exemplar to Emperor Charles himself in Antwerp in 1539, who received it thankfully, apparently unaware that any foul had been committed. Beyond the Iberian Peninsula, there was clearly much more freedom, even amongst Spaniards.

Some other exiles, however, made more strident protests, translating and even organizing themselves to smuggle works into Spain by outright heretics like Luther and Calvin. They clearly still held out hope that the spiritual state of Spain was just as ripe for reform as the Holy Roman Empire, and they were certainly aided in this conviction by Charles v’s swinging political alignments during the years leading up to the Schmalkaldic War.

Juan Pérez de Pineda hunkered down in friendly Geneva for years, hoping to ignite the Spanish populace from afar with his evangelical tinder, translating and arranging clandestine shipments of hot books via trusted colporteurs.[16]

Others sought refuge closer to home but equally safe. Juan Valdés, brother to royal advisor Alfonso, was part of an intellectual dynasty and directed his keen mind and high style to catechetical work. In his Renaissance dialogues, he limited the sacraments to three, uplifted the centrality of Scripture, and called for the end of priestly celibacy.[17] His sources seem to have been more Erasmian than Lutheran. But Carlos Gilly has shown that his connection with the Reformation was likely much tighter than this. Whole passages of his Alfabeto Cristiano, for their portrayal of the Christian before God, could have been lifted straight out of Luther’s Large Catechism, and they probably were.[18]

It is impossible to control fully peoples’ thoughts or their private lives. And so even within the healthy Spanish body tumorous conventicles again sprouted amidst the tumult of the 1540s. They sprung from various origins: some were ladies’ circles continuing that age-old tradition of spiritual gurus and the heady patronage of “free thought,” perhaps as a loose continuation of certain illuminist persuasions. No one knows how widespread they were, for they might not have differed much from official mysticism of the more heroic kind, such as that exhibited by exonerated contemporaries Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. These two are not chosen at random, for they, like so many suspicious people, shared in common a Jewish ancestry; their eventual beatification was hardly a done deal.

These pious circles found themselves buoyed by Erasmus, who played similar parlor games with rich families. But despite the ubiquity of these circles, it was the treacherous qualities of being converso or Erasmian—that is, having “foreign” taints—that were later invoked at the trials that saw the end of these privileged groups.[19] Others were more deliberately secretive rather than merely private. They imported banned books and took grand tours of the Protestant north,

returning to tend the glowing coals of personal faith in the spiritual freezer of the Catholic south. We know little of their inner workings, but their spirit and plight seems well enough portrayed by Miguel Delibes in his very well-received historical novel on the subject, El Hereje, in which a monkish Protestant convert faces trial under the Inquisition.[20] Partly indigenous, partly real agents of a foreign threat, these clandestine “Protestants” became the eventual prototype for all future foreign “infections.”

Constantino Ponce de la Fuente and the New World’s Luther

One figure in particular illustrates the confusion wrought upon these various movements by the interruption of Luther, the heretic. Constantino Ponce de la Fuente was brilliant priest of converso stock, whose booming voice and rhetorical gifts won him the prestigious position of Seville’s cathedral preacher—at the time, a rather independent sort of religious job with lots of public acclaim. A much calmer version of Savonarola, Constantino managed to warm the hearts of Seville’s elite, who formed small groups to prolong the excitement of his Bible-based expositional sermons. His orations were published to great acclaim as Doce dudas, which reflected his previously published Catechism.

For those in the know, his works had to have been quite suspicious: he argued for the proper distinction between law and gospel, justification by faith, and a hierarchy-light emphasis on three sacraments—baptism, communion, and confession—as did also Valdés and Erasmus. Tellechea Idígoras has traced these strikingly similar passages to one of Melanchthon’s Loci communes, which the preacher may also have borrowed from yet another controversial colleague, Bartholomé de Carranza.[21] These ideas are of the broad-minded humanist persuasion, though, and there’s no reason to look for conspiratorial plagiarism. Erasmus was the spring from which many of the “real” Protestant reformers drank deeply as well.

Constantino made enemies at court, though, and despite—or perhaps because of—his intimate connection with Charles v’s son Phillip ii (he was the young king’s private confessor), the preacher was imprisoned for being a “Lutheran” and died in a damp cell before his death sentence could be commuted. Whether Constantino or his influential teacher Juan Gil (or Egidio) were “Lutheran” as accused, or whether they were “mere” Erasmian proponents of inner religious experience, is a matter of philological discussion. Constantino certainly shared “Lutheran” commitments to preaching, cutting down on the number of sacraments, cultivating personal prayer and devotional life, and even reading Scripture. If he did follow Luther, it was not in the details of his proposed spiritual regimen or even his call to ecclesiastical reform—topics freely discussed at the time—but in his trenchant critique of Rome.[22] And this was enough for the Inquisition to condemn him and his entire oeuvre as infected by “Lutheran” contagion.

There’s a strange bridge in all this between the Old World and the New, constructed from the remains of Constantino’s condemned Catechism. It was not the peninsular Dominicans running the inquisitors’ courts but the missionaries of newly discovered territories who recognized the need for a fresh and vigorous catechism. And so while Constantino’s work died a lasting European death in the flames of Valladolid’s 1558–59 auto-da-fé, it lived a second life in the New World, where large sections were lifted out directly and put to work in the field under the name of the great Franciscan bishop Juan de Zumárraga. It even inspired the fiercely Counter-Reformation Jesuits in Brazil and Goa![23] So it’s quite possible, at least if we take seriously the Inquisition’s own judgment on the matter, that Mexico’s Nahua and Zacatecas natives learned their Christian basics from a “Lutheran” heretic.

But so much of this genealogical spelunking takes as its starting point what a century of scholarship has tried to chip away, namely, the notion of an intact Catholic bastion beating o all foreign contagions. We can now see in the first decades of the sixteenth century the same liveliness among Spain’s urban religious elite that was the case in the lands to the north. It is, quite ironically, the specter of Luther the archheretic and the separatist Reformation itself that triggered the repression of nascent and parallel movements for ecclesiastical reform in Spain. And while the now more distinctly than ever Roman Catholic church launched its own sincere and far-reaching efforts to reform itself in body and members, the timing was too late. The decrees of Trent, but even more its Jesuit agents abroad, were dead set to inoculate the as-yet-innocent New World against any possible heretical infection.

A New Reception of Luther?

Much has passed between then and now: the whole modern world, in fact. As ubiquitous secularism and our peculiar form of postmodern transhumance (one side of globalization) perforate, well, just about everything, the old confessional saws are more tired than ever—at least among the mobile elite. But on the ground, the trenches between católicos and cristianos (a distinction even Latin American Catholics generally accept!) are continually dug ever deeper, scoring points o each other in an anachronistic game of pope vs. Bible. One can certainly hear it blasting from storefront churches all over Latin America’s slums.

The current pope’s openness to rapprochement may bear ecumenical fruit. And if there does exist an opportunity to salve the wounds kept open by centuries of dutifully maintained confessional conflict, as well as to address a democratic “context” increasingly incredulous of authority (whether confessional or hierarchical), it will be aided by investigating afresh the spiritual roots of the Reformation in certain strains of late-medieval piety. It is here that Lutherans themselves can see the broader swath of movements that came to be institutionalized in their own public worship, education, and family devotional life; and Catholics can appropriate many of their own great lights as partners with the Protestant reformers in a quest to make the Christian faith more rigorous, mystical, and heartfelt. Here there’s ample room to reopen the study of Ibero-America’s own rich tradition of indigenous religious reformers and so to avoid contracting, as Derrida described, yet another even more self-obsessed sickness, the mal d’archive.

Andrew L. Wilson is the Production Editor of Lutheran Forum and author of Here I Walk: One Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther.
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1. See Martin Nesvig, “‘Heretical Plagues’ and Censorship Cordons: Colonial Mexico and the Transatlantic Book Trade,” Church History 75/1 (2006): 1–37.
2. Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, Historia de los heterodoxos españoles, vol. 1 (Madrid: Católica, 1978 [1880]), 47.
3. See most recently Allan H. Anderson, To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 172.
4. Alicia Mayer, Lutero en el Paraíso: La Nueva España en el Espejo del Reformador Alemán (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2005). See also her article “Specters of Luther, Heresiarch of Colonial Mexico,” also in the Winter 2013 issue of Lutheran Forum.
5. See Protestantes, liberales y francmasones, sociedades de ideas y modernidad en América latina, siglo XIX, 4th ed., ed. J.-P. Bastian (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006), and J.-P. Bastian, Le protestantisme en Amérique latine, une approche socio-historique (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1994).
6. Even Ricardo Garcia Villoslada’s admirable and otherwise patient Martin Lutero (Madrid: Editorial Católica, 1976) harbors many of these existential tropes that Luther scholars have struggled hard to leave behind.
7. The main sources are Marcel Batillon’s Erasme et l’Espagne, 2nd ed. (Geneva: Droz, 1998), and José Nieto, El Renacimiento y la otra España: Visión cultural socioespiritual (Geneva: Droz, 1997).
8. See Basel Hall, “The Trilingual College of San Idelfonso and the Making of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible,” Studies in Church History 5, ed. J. G. Cuming (Leiden: Brill), 114–46.
9. See also Felipe Fernández-Armesto, “Cardinal Cisneros as a Patron of Printing,” in God and Man in Medieval Spain: Essays in Honour of J. R. L. Highfield, eds. Derek W. Lomax and David Mackenzie (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1989).
10. See José Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras, Tiempos recios: Inquisición y heterodoxias: El peso de los días, vol. 2 (Salamanca: Sígueme, 1977).
11. Especially the unfortunately dated work of Melquíades Andrés Martín, “Adversarios españoles de Lutero en 1521,” Revista española de teología 12 (1959): 175–85; and “Alumbrados, Erasmistas, ‘Luteranos’ y misticos, y su común denominador: el riesgo de una espiritualidad más ‘intimista,’” Inquisición Espanola y mentalidad inquisitorial: Ponencias del Simposio Internacional sobre Inquisición, ed. Ángel Alcalá et al. (Barcelona: Ariel, 1983).
12. Notably via the efforts of Volker Leppin. See, for example, Gottes Nähe unmittelbar erfahren. Mystik im Mittelalter und bei Martin Luther, eds. Berndt Hamm und Volker Leppin (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007).
13. See Augustin Redondo, “Les premiers ‘illumines’ Castillans et Luther,” Aspects du libertinisme au XVI Siècle (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1974), 93–103.
14. The twin volumes by Werner Thomas, La repressión del protestantismo en España 1517– 1648, and Los protestantes y la Inquisición en España en tiempos de Reforma y Contrarreforma (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001), make abundantly clear with reams of statistical data that the chief target of inquisitors—and by a very large margin—was foreignness. They profiled.
15. An informally canonized group of these were publicized in the nineteenth century in the twenty-four volumes of Reformistas Antiguos Españoles, edited by the Englishman Benjamin Wiffen and his Spanish colleague Luís Usóz y Río. From their efforts we know the likes of Juan Valdéz, Juan Pérez de Pineda, Francisco Enzinas, and Constantino Ponce de la Fuente.
16. For examples of this trade, see Carlos Gilly, Spanien und der Basler Buchdruck bis 1600: ein Querschnitt durch die spanische Geistesgeschichte aus der Sicht einer europäischen Buchdruckerstadt (Basel: Helbing and Lichtenhahn, 1985).
17. See José C. Nieto, Juan de Valdés and the Origins of the Spanish and Italian Reformation (Geneva: Droz, 1970), or better, the expanded Spanish edition, Juan de Valdés y los orígenes de la Reforma en España e Italia (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1979), which has added the appendix, “El Espectro de Lutero y las Máscaras de Erasmo en España,” 543–63.
18. Carlos Gilly, “Juan de Valdés, traductor y adaptor de los escritos de Lutero en su Diálogo de doctrina Cristiana,” in Miscelánea de estudios hispánicos; homenaje a los hispanistas de Suiza, Ramon Sugranyes de Franch, ed. Luis López Molina (Monserrat: Gra ques Badalona, 1982), 85–106.
19. Again, see Bataillon, Erasme et l’Espagne.
20. Miguel Delibes, El Hereje (Barcelona: Ediciones Destino, 1998).
21. J. Ignacio Tellechea Idígoras, Melanchthon y Carranza: Préstamos y afinidades, Bibliotheca Oecumenica Salmanticensis 4 (Salamanca: Centro de Estudios Orientales y Ecuménicos Juan XXIII/Universidad Pontífica, 1979).
22. Nieto, El Renacimiento y la otra España, 313.
23. José Ramón Guerrero, Catecismos españoles del siglo XVI: La obra catequética del Dr. Constantino Ponce de la Fuente, Colección de estudios del instituto superior del pastoral, Universidad Pontíficia de Salamanca 1 (Madrid: Instituto Superior de Pastoral, 1969), 335–9.

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