Monk’s re­bel­lion helped bring power to the peo­ple

The New Zealand Herald - - EDITORIAL & LETTERS - Paul Moon com­ment Dr Paul Moon is Pro­fes­sor of His­tory at Auck­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy.

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.

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