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Lutheran Faust


Following the excommunication of Martin Luther from the Roman Catholic Church in 1521 the world for Luther and those that followed him changed. For Luther not only was outside of the church, his very actions had eradicated for himself and his followers the very security of the tradition that the church had afforded them: there was no more belief in the Virgin, the communion of saints, the pope, or the councils. Luther may have unshackled himself from the pope and a corrupt papacy, but also he had unshackled himself from its protection as well.

A notable example of the consciousness of this is illustrated in the versions of Goethe's play Faust that appeared following the Reformation. The history of Goethe's play has been described in the article Faust. This article Lutheran Faust will not touch on the ordinary description of Goethe's play, but will describe differences inserted in other versions that were influenced by Lutheran thinkers; this is to demonstrate how events of a period can influence the literature of that and later periods.

In summary, the Faustbook tells how the scholar Faust becoming disappointed with philosophy turns to magic. Given the antischolastic bias of the Protestant Reformation, it is natural that the scholarly main character should sell his soul to Satan who is a scholar. In selling his soul Faust is depicted as trying to obtain knowledge by his own methods rather than receiving it through grace. This individualistic rebellion of Faust's sin connects it to the original sin of humanity (Adam and Eve's stealing of the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge) and to pride (the original sin of Satan himself). This was a prototype of the Romantic and modern revolt against authority. Faust is fully determined to become a master of magical lore so he calls on the Devil himself. Journeying to a crossroad at night, he inscribes magical circles and characters upon the ground and invokes a spirit named Beelzebub. As it is readily seen, magic and witchcraft are deliberately mixed, the traditional signs and symbols of hermetic magic with the invocation of an evil spirit. The spirit assumes various forms such as a dragon, a fiery globe, a fiery man, and finally a greyfriar. This metamorphosis serves to identify the spirit with the traditional Devil, and the greyfriar figure identifies him with monkery and popery, the Devil's chief tools. To Faust the spirit identifies himself as a member of a great hierarchy whose prince is Lucifer. He further explains, though he is a potentate in hell, he is just a servant of this great prince, whose expressed permission he needs before he can agree to serve the scholar.

The relationship between Faust and the Devil, which lasts over twenty-four years, comes to an end. Faust now must live up to the agreement. Faust has previously thought about this when being terrified by the thought of the terrors of hell. He had expressed these feelings to Mephistopheles, the spirit in the form of a Franciscan monk, which Faust had first asked him to take whenever he spoke to him, another anti-Catholic element in the story, who tells Fault that it is too late to humble and glorify God; something that Faust has never done, Mephistopheles adds. Faust had got himself into the predicament and must get himself out of it.

This last element of the story was a major expression of belief following the Protestant Reformation. The combatants were just Faust and the Devil. There was no other saint or the Virgin to help Faust as in earlier versions of the story. A Lutheran author certainly would not want the Blessed Virgin intervening to aid Faust. In fact, one version has Faust signing a contact with the Devil for the spirit's service, which represents Faust selling his soul to the Devil, but more so it is a reference to the pacts that witches had with the Devil.

This was typical of the theology of the Reform movement, man could only be saved by the grace of God, and without it he was lost. The story becomes pessimistic. These versions of Faust are based on the medieval belief that once the individual has sinned and turned away from God his heart becomes hardened against repentance. This is more than a touch of predestination; it is almost fatalism. The story was the origin for the modern pessimism in current literature, such as the current horror movies that show the power of evil while ignoring the power of good.

In revealing the Protestant ambivalence for knowledge, the story also brought to light, perhaps unknowingly, the long existing conflict between Christianity and science. The basis for this was Faust's desire for knowledge, which went against the Protestantism that held that the soul unaided by grace could not obtain true knowledge. According to this Faust's sin was the prideful desire to gain knowledge for its own sake and for the power that it would give him. A similar complaint has been raised against most modern education and science for centuries; it only serves man, not God.

In the story of Faust, especially after the Reformation, the Devil almost becomes human. As Mephistopheles transforms one sees a transformation of the Devil character too. In being a little sympathetic with his victim, one gathers that he is perhaps regretful of his own rebellion against God. At times Faust and the Devil mirror each other; they both have rebelled, they feel remorse, but they are alone with no one to turn to.

Many see this as the situation of most Protestants following the Reformation; they were alone and by themselves because of the Protestantism emphasis upon the lonely struggle of each person isolated in combat with spiritual powers. The previous community of the communion of saints, or allies, no longer existed. However, as many believe, what eventually arose were some staunch Christian soldiers. A.G.H.


Source: 82, 59-66.