Luther and Valla on The Donation of Constantine: Thoughts about Truth and History
Lorenzo Valla’s book debunking the myth that Constantine gave most of the Western territories to Pope Sylvester was published in 1517. By that point Conciliarists had been trying to limit the power of the Papal office for hundreds of years, and Martin Luther had already come to conclusions similar to those of the Bohemian reformer Jan Huss. However, Valla’s uncovering of the fraudulence of this document added conviction to both Conciliarist beliefs and those of the Reformers. Valla affirms:
I know that for a long time now men’s ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. (Valla, Discourse on the Alleged Donation of Constantine, p. 23.)
Martin Luther read this book in 1520 and was both shocked and more fully convinced that the real battle in which he had already begun to take part centered upon the problem of the papacy. He tells of his surprise and anguish of discovering the truth about the forged Donation to his friend Spalatin:
I have at hand Lorenzo Valla’s proof (edited by Hutten) that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. Good heavens! what a darkness and wickedness is at Rome! You wonder at the judment of God that such unauthentic, erass, impudent lies not only lived but prevailed for so many centuries, that they were incorporated in the Canon Law, and (that no degree of horror might be wanting) that they became as articles of faith. I am in such a passion that I scarecely doubt that the Pope is the Antichrist expected by the world, so closely do their acts, lives, sayings, and laws agree. (Letter to Spalatin, Feb. 24, 1520.)
C.S. Lewis says that rationalists are like children. When their premises have been proven false they still do not concede the argument but resort to ad hominems or the childish reply, “nuh-uh.” Rationalists also, in my experience, are bad historians. Luther’s problem with the Roman church was more than just doctrinal, as many today believe. His battle was against those who did not have the heart for Truth even though their minds seemed sharp and ripe with understanding. Luther did not want to make people merely understand his teachings on justification, he wanted those teachings to affect their hearts. When people have a reasoned desire for Truth they ask critical questions and are not afraid of the conclusions.
The true end of sacred doctrine is to humble us and change our heart of stone to a spiritual heart. Doctrine partially fulfills our desire for Truth. Thomas said that sacred doctrine is like God’s own understanding. Unfortunately, people today tend to use doctrine either to exclude others or they treat doctrine as if it is an end in itself. Some think that if our doctrine of justification is worded correctly we will have a perfect knowledge of its truth; if not, then the gospel itself has been compromised. This produces a spirit of rationalism that seeks to strip away anything mysterious for the purpose of “clarifying” difficult teachings. If the right formulation of these doctrines is necessary for salvation then we better seek to know them perfectly. Hence, our textbooks of theology tend to look more like dictionaries.
When we become overzealous for doctrinal purity we tend to lose all bearing on the path toward Truth, and eventually we lose all desire for Truth. Valla, though he remained loyal to the Roman Church was able to criticize the magisterium even to the point of accusing it of deliberate fabrication. Martin Luther, though not a historian, also demonstrated his desire for Truth with his call to go back to the fountain of scripture in order to reassess those doctrines that have been corrupted by the “Truth-deniers” at Rome. Of course, his ad fontes approach was not so radical that he spurned the wisdom of the church fathers or the regula fide. Luther was not a “patrist” however. When he read Valla’s book what really surprised him was the lack of concern for the Truth by the Roman vicar. This should be a reminder for those of us seeking to be Reformed historians/theologians/philosophers, etc. that (a) Truth is something to be contemplated not sealed up and stored away, (b) Truth requires investigation but not concise discursive explanation, and (c) Truth is something to be lived. Without a heart for Truth we will not know the truth, and will quite possibly try to keep others from knowing it.