Luther and Valla on The Donation of Constantine: Thoughts about Truth and History

VallaLorenzo 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.)

LutherMartin 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.

4 thoughts on “Luther and Valla on The Donation of Constantine: Thoughts about Truth and History

  1. A good post, but a few qualifiers:

    Luther was a bombastic personality anyway, and it did not help matters that his earliest papalist opponents were a bunch of rabid fanatics who took his simple, quite proper request for an academic dispute about unsettled matters and transformed it into a craven assault on the very foundations of Christian society – something Luther never envisioned. (See David Bagchi, Luther’s Earliest Opponents on this).

    For one, we should probably think of many Medieval errors (like accepting the Donation as legit) were made honestly, not with malice aforethought. In an age where books of any kind were rare, they all tended to possess an almost “magical” aura. One Catholic writer has said that the problem with the Medievals was that because of the “aura” surrouding books, they reverenced books so much that they would almost literally believe anything if they read it in a book.

    After the collapse of the Empire in the West, and the helter-skelter Christian attempt to save everything they could from the wreck, it took a while for any kind of critical thought about texts to emerge, and even longer for it to work out its implications in different spheres of inquiry. Then too, there was nearly always more than “just the text” at issue. People are people, and they often talk themselves into telling – and then believing – what Plato called “noble lies” for reasons that seem better to get at justice than the “plain facts.” This was certainly the case with a similar forgery that wound up underwriting exaggerated papalist claims: the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, which appeared in the 9th century, were not written for the purpose of deceiving people, but for the purpose of allowing Carolingian bishops being preyed upon by the temporal power to show that there was a higher court on earth than the temporal power, to which the temporal power had to answer. Eventually this logic got abusive on its own, but it didn’t start out that way, and it is worth pondering whether we would have done any better had we been in their shoes.

    Second, sometimes people are just plain blind. Lewis is probably right that rationalists are like children, and it’s very easy to read the papalist rationalists of the later 15th and early to mid 16th century that way: papalist reality collapsing around their heads, and all they could do was go “Nuh-uh! Jesus did too set it up this way! Neener-neener!” But again, a lot more was at stake. If you’ve seen the 2004 Luther movie, think about how Cajetan was portrayed when he interviewed Luther. He was a man deeply concerned with the stability of a Christian society threatened on every side with dissolution, and he was simply dumbfounded that in that context Luther would want to carry out a potentially explosive doctrinal debate. Wasn’t the health of the whole body of Christendom at that moment worth more than a “mere” academic dispute about indulgences? Couldn’t that be done after the Turks were repulsed and the crises between the Empire and Church resolved? Why did it have to be now, at the worst possible moment?

    On the other hand, if one reads Cajetan’s dispute with the conciliarists John Mair and Jacques Almain, conducted during the Fifth Lateran Council just before the outbreak of the Reformation, it is difficult not to see Cajetan as a blind rationalist, chanting maxims about the utility and goodness of the papacy that had been utterly disproved in the preceding century, and then insulting good Christian men everywhere by demanding that they just sit on their rumps and pray that God wouldn’t let the pope wreck the Church. The Cajetan the cardinal who cared about the health of the whole body was the same Cajetan who refused to look reality in the face and acknowledge that the pope had already wrecked the Church, and now it was time to take drastic measures to clean up after the fool.

    I think we sometimes forget when we read old texts in the safety and comfort of our studies that the people who wrote them were not us and did not have the benefit of hindsight and liberty to think things through more carefully that we have. Although it is not a good thing for a whole massive system of government to be largely built on and maintained by lies, both detecting the lies and formulating a prudent, workable response to them is not easy and may not necessarily mean there is something wicked going on.

  2. Tim, thanks for the clarifications! In this post I was taking advantage of hindsight, looking at both the falsification of the original document and its propagation throughout the Medieval and early Modern periods. I agree that many ecclesiastical leaders were most likely ignorant of the pseudonymous nature of the text.

    Valla surely leaves open the possibility that someone knowingly forged the document – “either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it.” There was (as you know) such thing as textual criticism in the Middle Ages, e.g., William of Moerbeke. And part of the tradition of commentating on theological and philosophical works was for the purpose of determining the validity of the author – Thomas discovered that the Liber De Causis was probably written by Proclus, not Aristotle. (“Historical investigation, dialectical enquiry, and rational demonstration are all part of philosophy as textual commentary [in the Middle Ages]. Wayne Hankey, “Why Philosophy Abides for Aquinas.”)

    Of course, the Donation may have been drafted by the church in order to protect the ecclesial realm from the civil magistrate – as you noted. If that is the case, I am still sympathetic to Luther’s accusations against the papacy. If a certain individual drafted the Donation for the purpose of saving the church that original good intent has been turned by Satan into an excuse for power-hungry bishops to gain more wealth and territory, thus changing the church from a house of prayer to a quasi-religious commonwealth. Hence, the problem with indulgences.

    In terms of a lack of desire for Truth, Luther really believed that the man who sat in the chair in Rome was the anti-Christ – as Oberman verifies. He didn’t believe this just because he had an extroverted personality. This means that the papal office, whether consciously or unconsciously was the tool of Satan by which the gospel of free salvation in Christ had been distorted. The demons in Screwtape Letters try to remove from their patient any desire to ponder the truth value of things, since the truth about particular things points to the first cause of all truth. The papal office seemed more worried about acquiring territory and building a basilica in Rome than the pursuit of Truth – just look at the level of education received by the clergy in England and elsewhere in the 16th century.

    So, I am not accusing the whole Medieval church of having a lack of desire for the truth. My accusation most likely lies with those whom you described as a “bunch of rabid fanatics who took his simple, quite proper request for an academic dispute about unsettled matters and transformed it into a craven assault on the very foundations of Christian society…” Unfortunately, we have many of those types within the Presbyterian church today. That’s really who this post is aimed at. There are those within all branches of the church catholic who place doctrinal purity above the pursuit of Truth, as if the two naturally contradict.

    Pax Christi,


  3. Eric, good counter-clarifications, heh. I was trying not to make my comment too long, so I abbreviated such things as more directly mentioning the tradition of textual criticism that you mention. I don’t know anything about Moerbeke, but from my studies it seems that really serious textual criticism didn’t get started until the mid-12th century. Gratian’s Decretum and Abelard’s Sic et Non got the ball rolling with sufficient speed to allow for Lombard’s Sentences, and then after that the Scholastics. Of course, since your post was about Valla, the best burst of really transformative criticism came with the onset of the Renaissance.

    To echo your own remark, my sympathies also lie with Luther – in saying that we should try to better understand the papacy and what it made it tick, I am by no means advocating endorsing it. The story of the papacy in the Middle Ages is like a Greek tragedy: it started well, but ended horrifically. And it was indeed the fault of many of the popes, who acted like Lewis’ rationalist “children” rather than like responsible Christian men doing what their forebears like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great had envisioned as the bishop of Rome taking on “the care of the churches.”

    Certainly we don’t even have to start with the Reformation to see the massive problems with the later Medieval papacy. John of Paris struck at some of its pretensions around 1304, and William Durandus the Younger followed up at the Council of Vienne in 1311. By the time of the Council of Constance in 1414, there was a general recognition that the papacy was neck deep in numerous intractable problems, not least of which was the sin of simony – a favorite Medieval whipping boy since, ironically, Pope Gregory VII’s reforms. A growing litany of complaints of papal abusiveness swept Christendom during the 15th century (there’s a great book, Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation that chronicles many of these). Then you get Erasmus writing wonderful little pieces like Praise of Folly and Julius Excluded From Heaven, the latter about the shocking worldliness and arrogance of Pope Julius II, Leo X’s immediate predecessor.

    So yes, I agree with your remarks generally. 🙂

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