Monk’s rebellion helped bring power to the people
In a remarkable act of grace, Pope Francis decided to rename a square near the Colosseum in Rome after Martin Luther. And last year, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, said Luther “deserves the credit for bringing this truth back when its meaning had been lost over the centuries, at least in Christian preaching, and it is this above all for which Christianity is indebted to the Reformation.”
These are hugely symbolic gestures and concessions in anticipation of the 500th anniversary — on 31 October — of a German monk’s protest against what he saw as the corruption and doctrinal error of the Catholic Church. Yet, despite the intervening centuries of difficult and torturous (sometimes literally) relations between Catholics and Protestants, the present pontiff has recently acknowledged Luther’s intention was not to divide the church but to renew it.
However, while these two major branches of Christianity tentatively inch closer to each other, the revolution Luther triggered half a millennium ago continues to roll well beyond the denominational estrangement he created. Even the fact that you can read this piece in the Herald today is partly due to that revolution.
Luther had faith in people more than popes. Through translating the Bible into the language of his compatriots, and through insisting that individuals ought to interpret if for themselves, he wrested power away from Rome, and encouraged it to reside in the minds of individuals. It’s this ability – this right – of people to read and watch whatever they choose, and to make up their own minds about issues, that now forms the basis of all modern societies. What was at the time regarded as apostasy is now cherished as a cornerstone of civilisation.
Five hundred years ago, Western knowledge was largely controlled and cloistered in the Catholic Church. The Reformation Luther ushered in was a great liberating force in this area, and in conjunction with advances in printing, revolutionised the spread of information and ideas. The written word rapidly lost its talismanic attributes, but became more valued in other ways.
As John Milton, another staunch Protestant, wrote in the following century, “who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” Being informed and challenged directly by text was a major advance that Luther’s rebellion contributed to, and a fledgling media was one of the early fruits of this transformation in text.
The Reformation also unleashed a questioning spirit — a sometimes healthy doubt in accepted beliefs and a desire to discover new truths. Since that time, this inquiring spirit has propelled enormous advances in the sciences and in human society more generally.
Until Luther’s time, the Church was the absolute authority on matters of doctrine. Western Europe’s religious dogma, and its belief in the divinity of its political leaders, was determined by the Church. Papal authority was the alpha and omega of not only religious faith, but royal authority as well. Dissent was heresy and treasonous.
It was the principle of personal liberty championed by the Protestants that later enabled the ascent of democracy in the developed world. In issues of faith — and later in political matters — the individual rather than the state was sovereign. The Reformation subverted the power of absolute rulers, and so it was little wonder that it met with such fierce resistance for centuries afterwards from those who preferred to govern without consent.
Of course, the Reformation was not without its faults. Political prospectors in newly minted Protestant nations seized on the opportunities it created to establish or advance their own political dominion. And on the periphery of this revolution, there were brief spasms of virulent antiSemitism, more prolonged bouts of often vicious warfare, and the usual abuses that accompany the birth of most revolutions.
But once the dust had settled, the view of the world was irrevocably changed, and it’s a view we can still see all around us, and more importantly, within ourselves.
No other revolution in history has changed people’s identity as the Reformation did. Luther could never have imagined how widespread and longlasting his role in it would be, but from the vantage point of half a millennium, we can appreciate his contribution to what we otherwise probably take for granted as the modern world.