Five hundred years ago today the Protestant Reformation began and changed the world.
It didn't just change the church. It unleashed great social and political upheaval, too, including well as war.
And it's surprisingly relevant even today. In particular, the Western world's emphasis on individualism and the maturation of nationalism were significantly and irreversibly advanced by the Reformation. It also marked the advent of the printing press as a profoundly powerful tool for change. It even affected the evolution of art and music and the development of European languages.
In fact, it's hard to imagine modernity arising in the Western world at all without the Reformation happening first.
The man who started the Reformation did so inadvertently. He had no idea what cataclysmic consequences would follow on from his actions.
Luther is a complicated historic figure. He had a deep, molten anger that energized him much of the time. He was an anti-Semite and could be crass. He was willing to advocate warfare in defense of the Reformation's ideals. But he could be warm-hearted and witty, and he was ultimately motivated by concern of others, not himself.
On October 31, 1517, he posted on what was akin to the university's notice board a disputation aimed at fellow academics. Luther's disputation became known as the Ninety-five Theses. (It was in Latin as the vast majority of published work was at that time.)
The Ninety-five Theses called for reform of the Church, specifically the practice of selling indulgences, which were a bit like documents certifying by Church authority the forgiveness of someone's sins, usually the buyer's but sometimes those of someone else.
Luther was profoundly dismayed by indulgences.
To Luther, indulgences were grotesquely far removed from any kind of spiritual truth that could be found in the Bible, and they were a disgusting abuse of power on the part of the Church and specially the Pope.
He saw them as not merely misguided but abhorrently cynical. The money from their sale was primarily used for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Vatican, something the vast majority of Christians would never see or benefit from in any way.
Luther's revulsion was not merely theological but pastoral. Which is to say that he worried about how indulgences and other Church practices endangered peoples' souls, caused them great anxiety about their chances of getting into heaven. There was also the practical concern that indulgences wasted the peoples' hard-earned money. For Luther, indulgences were a scam, a type of theft.
Luther had spent much of his life before the Reformation in psychological torment—true anguish—about whether or not he was going to get to heaven.
In time, he reached a deep conviction that no one could earn a place in heaven, such as through the purchases of indulgences or even charitable works.
Rather, only by the grace (mercy) of God did one gain eternal life in heaven with God after one dies. The pathway to heaven didn't depend on the strenuousness of one's efforts. No one could get to heaven that way anyway, because all individuals are inherently too sinful, completely unworthy of heaven. But God made eternal life available to everyone nonetheless, and did so through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Luther believed that this truth was plainly provided in the words of Bible. One of the many things he objected to about the Church of his day was how it seemed to obfuscate this direct message of the Bible ("the scriptures") by upholding Church traditions like keeping the Bible in Latin—a language average people did not know—instead of letting the Bible be published in a language of the common man and woman, such as German.
Luther’s ideas caught on and spread quickly throughout Europe thanks to a new technology, the printing press. Before the printing press, written works had to be copied by hand, which made them rare and expensive. But the printing press allowed large numbers of copies of written work to be quickly produced, easily transported, cheaply made, and, thus—when not made available for free—cheaply purchased.
As the ideas of the Reformation took root in many parts of Europe, especially in Northern Europe, and threatened traditional power structures, bloodshed followed, political dynasties were shaken, and countless thousands of people began to live their faith and think about God, themselves, and even their daily lives and their common language differently than Christians had for centuries.
The Reformation is more properly called the Protestant Reformation. Those Christians who like Luther rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and forged ahead with various versions of Luther-inspired Christianity became known as Protestants—those who were in protest against the Church such as it had existed for centuries.
One of the hallmarks of Protestantism became its fractious nature. Different kinds of Protestantisms emerged soon after Luther's decisive act—indeed new ones still emerge now—and often came into intense conflict with each other, even violently so.
Image: Martin Luther (1529) by the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), oil on panel, Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany.