How the Reformation Shaped Your World

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Dec 24, 2018

Can one man change the world? The life and work of Martin Luther prove the answer to that question is an unqualified, “yes.” Stephen Cornils of the Wartburg Theological Seminary details the rebellion that fractured a centuries-old religion and changed the course of history.

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The Reformation began with a simple list of complaints against the Catholic Church—and ended up changing the world.

  • On October 31, 1517, German Catholic monk Martin Luther posted a series of complaints about the Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.View Source
  • Luther was upset by the Church’s practice of selling what were known as “indulgences” to wealthy patrons.View Source
  • Luther’s list of complaints was called the 95 Theses. He had intended his complaints for a scholastic and ecclesial audience, and had no idea that he would spark a movement.View Source
  • Luther’s friend, the Dutch scholar Erasmus, urged him to limit his criticism of the Church to indulgences. If he had, the matter might have been resolved and the old order preserved.View Source
  • Related reading: “October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World” – Martin E. MartyView Source

A key belief that drove the Reformation was there should be no separation between the Bible and the believer. 

  • One of Martin Luther’s driving convictions was that there should be no separation between the individual and Scripture.View Source
  • At first, Luther did not intend to start a new church. He even defended the Catholic Church for some time after posting the 95 Theses.View Source
  • Luther placed a great importance on the word of God and believed indulgences had corrupted that focus. “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God,” he said.View Source
  • Related reading: “Martin Luther: The Man who Rediscovered God and Changed the World” – Eric MetaxesView Source

The Reformation’s focus on individuals reading the Bible helped spread literacy and learning across Europe. 

  • The Protestant Reformation’s focus on the importance of individuals reading the Bible helped spread literacy and learning across Europe.View Source
  • Martin Luther emphasized the idea that the Bible was accessible and understandable to the common, not just church officials.View Source
  • Luther translated the Bible into everyday German, and inadvertently helped codify and teach the German the language.View Source
  • Bibles of the Middle Ages were written in Latin, the language of the Church, based on a 4th-century translation by St. Jerome.View Source
  • Latin was read by educated lay people and clergy, and some passages may have been memorized by illiterate lay people.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Reformation: A History” – Diarmaid MacCullochView Source

The recent invention of the printing press was crucial to the success of the Protestant Reformation.

  • Martin Luther’s writings could be quickly disseminated to the people thanks to the printing press, which had been invented less than a century earlier.View Source
  • The printing press could produce pamphlets, books, and newspapers at 250 sheets per hour.View Source
  • Without the printing press, Luther would have likely suffered the same fate of reformers before him, like Jan Hus, who was tried, convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1415.View Source
  • Before the invention of the printing press, were all handwritten, a process that usually took months, making books rare and expensive.View Source
  • Medieval book pages were made from animal skins, which required a far lengthier treatment process than paper, which only became common around 1450.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change” – Elizabeth L. EisensteinView Source

Luther’s ideas helped create the modern individual—a free actor with God-given rights that exist independent of man-made institutions.

  • The Protestant Reformation’s empowerment of the individual led to the rise of capitalism in Protestant countries.View Source
  • The Reformation’s focus on reading the Bible helped spread literacy and learning across Europe.View Source
  • The American Revolution with its idea that individuals “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” should be free to form their own government was born of the Reformation.View Source
  • Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, all but one was a Protestant.View Source

An unintended consequence of the Reformation was a series of bloody religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. 

  • The Wars of Religion — involving Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, England, and others — lasted for two hundred years and cost countless lives.View Source
  • The Wars of Religion began with the Peasants’ War in 1524. Luther condemned the rebels, although the rebels were inspired by his ideas.View Source
  • The Thirty Years War began as a conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and Protestant princes of Germany, but soon became a European conflict.View Source
  • In 1562 in France, a bloody civil war was sparked between Calvinist Huguenots and the Catholic monarchy.View Source
  • The Thirty Years’ War alone from 1618 to 1648 is reputed to have led to about eight million deaths from fighting, famine, and disease.View Source
  • When the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648, the map of Europe had been permanently changed.View Source

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, a German Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther posted some complaints he had about the Catholic Church on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther was upset by the Church practice of selling what were known as “indulgences” to wealthy patrons. Indulgences might be loosely described as “get out of hell free” cards: pay this amount to the Church and the Church would make sure you don’t suffer unduly for your sins in the hereafter.

Luther felt very strongly that the practice not only made the Church look bad in the eyes of the common people, but had no scriptural basis.  He believed the Church needed to reform itself or would lose its legitimacy.

Nobody, including Luther, thought that his complaints—and he had made a list of 95 of them—would amount to much. He simply wanted to spark a discussion on an issue that deeply concerned him. Instead, he set off a chain reaction that literally changed the course of history.

The name we give to this change is the Protestant Reformation.

Had Luther limited his criticism of the Church to indulgences as his friend, the Dutch scholar Erasmus, urged him to do, the matter might have been resolved and the old order preserved. But the headstrong Luther was not someone to be restrained. 

Luther was what we could call today a flawed individual. He was brilliant and charismatic, but he was also vindictive and stubborn to a fault, and at the end of his life, sadly anti-Semitic.

Luther believed there should be no separation between the Bible and the believer. Every individual should have access to the word of God, Luther contended, as any priest did—or even the Pope. We take this view for granted now, but in the 16th century it was a radical concept.

And here’s why:

For more than a thousand years, the Church had been the dominant religious and political authority in Europe. It alone taught Christians how to understand the Bible. Luther was now challenging the very basis of this authority.

Not surprisingly, the Church didn’t take it well. What began as a squabble between a bold monk and the Catholic hierarchy soon developed into a titanic and bloody struggle that split Europe into opposing religious factions.

But the consequences of Luther’s ideas extended far beyond a religious dispute. It’s not an exaggeration to say that as a result of Luther’s ideas the modern individual was born—a free actor endowed with God-given rights that exist independent of government or any other institution. Each person could find those rights by reading and interpreting the Bible for himself.

Of course, to do that, you had to be able to read the Bible. And throughout the first millennium, right up until Luther’s day, only a very few people could.

Books, including the Bible, were all handwritten, a process usually that took months.  This made books rare—and expensive. Furthermore, most Bibles were written in Latin, the language of the Church, a language familiar only to the clergy and educated elite. This exclusivity was one of the many ways in which the Church maintained its power.

Luther answered this problem by translating the Bible into everyday German so that anyone could read it.

But his efforts would all have been for naught except for the recent invention of the printing press by a fellow German, Johannes Gutenberg. The printing press allowed, for the first time in history, books—and soon thereafter, pamphlets and newspapers—to be widely distributed.

Without the printing press, Luther would have likely suffered the same grim fate of reformers before him like Jan Hus, who was tried, convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. But because of the printing press, Luther’s movement could not be stopped.

And, indeed, could not be controlled.

Bloody religious wars between Catholic and Protestant forces quickly followed on the heels of Luther’s new ideas. They lasted for two hundred years and cost countless lives. The Thirty Years’ War alone, from 1618 to 1648, is reputed to have led to about eight million deaths from fighting, famine, and disease. 

But out of all this carnage, many positive changes came too. The Protestant empowerment of the individual led to capitalism and the Enlightenment, just to name two by-products of Luther's protest. The American Revolution, with its idea that individuals “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” should be free to form their own government, was another. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, all but one was a Protestant.

Pronouncing a verdict on an epoch as significant as the Reformation is very difficult. Perhaps it’s best not even to try. But we can say this: no other single figure made more of an impact on the modern world than the German Monk, Martin Luther. And even he would be surprised to know that.

I’m Stephen Cornils, of the Wartburg Theological Seminary, for Prager University.

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