On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses. This has come to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Last year, 2017, was its 500th anniversary.
Attempts to reform the Church had been underway for centuries. Efforts by individuals like Wyclife or movements like the Lollards never gained traction or were crushed by Rome. Martin Luther was the right person in the right place at the right time.
He highlighted justification, grace, faith, the Bible and the priesthood of all believers. These form the bedrock of Protestantism.
Widespread and rapid political, intellectual and cultural change was happening in Europe. This was partly birthed by the Renaissance with its emphasis on humanism, the evolution of a different world view and the use of the vernacular. The Church was seen as preoccupied with power, wealth and privilege, and the Papacy was deeply involved in the politics of Western Europe. The Empire was diminishing in size and waning in power, giving way to the nation state. Against this background, Luther accused the Church of error and superstition, worldliness and corruption, with a call for change. His initial demands were modest but in the face of hostile opposition and the changing environment, he took on more radical initiatives.
One of the fundamentals of Luther’s teaching was justification by faith. It is summarized in the declaration: “Justification by grace alone through faith alone, on the basis of Scripture alone.” He highlighted justification, grace, faith, the Bible and the priesthood of all believers. These form the bedrock of Protestantism.
Luther was able to spread the message of the Reformation by his ability to use current means of communication. He was adept at marketing, making use of the printing press and writing in the vernacular. Thus he could make the Bible, when translated into German, available to everybody; before it had been in Latin, only for the clergy. His skill as a writer resulted in pamphlets, catechisms and hymns which were widely distributed, and used in home, school and church.
While the Reformation shined light in the dark corners of the Church, it also had its own dark side. Luther was a complex and controversial figure whose words and actions often caused damage and grief. Three examples of his more hostile and intolerant side were his involvement in war, his dismissive rebuke of other reformers and his condemnation of the Jews.
The light that Luther ignited still burns brightly today. There are 800 million Protestants worldwide, although divided into hundreds of diverse denominations and groups with wide variations in belief and practice. Its cause may be that the Church is always reforming itself and sola Scripture allows for contradictory interpretations.
A major change today is the more irenic relationship between the Luther and Roman Catholic Churches. The two bodies have signed a number of agreements outlining their common beliefs: Joint Declaration on Justification (1998) and Declaration on the Way (2016).
What is the legacy of Luther? While his most notable contribution was his redefinition of the Church, he also influenced the development of modernity, separation of church and state, individual freedoms, nationalism, individualism, democracy, secularism, marriage and the family. One of the many books about Luther has the title “Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World,” by Alec Ryrie.
Conception Bay South